Shoreham-Wading River High School students submit research projects to Regeneron Science Talent Search Competition

Two Shoreham-Wading River High School students made district history as the first to submit research projects to the Regeneron Science Talent Search Competition. 

SWR seniors Dongkai Zhang and Derek Blanco’s research projects are now under consideration in the “nation’s oldest and most prestigious science research competition for high school students,” according to the Regeneron website. The competition was launched in 1942 as the Westinghouse Science Talent Search.

Derek’s project consisted of analyzing the chemical composition of sediment collected from the high school campus pond both before and after a water main break that happened a few years ago. 

“This water main break dumped a large amount of water directly from the pipes of the school down the slope of the hill, picking up any substances on it and going directly into the pond,” Derek said. “I started this research with the intention of finding if the pond had become contaminated from human activities. I then took these samples to Brookhaven National Laboratory, and using a technique called spectroscopy, I was able to observe and gather data on the elemental composition of the sediment samples.”

His findings are in the process of being compiled into manuscript form to be submitted for publication in a scientific journal.

Dongkai participated in the highly competitive High School Science Research Program at Brookhaven National Laboratory this summer. He worked in the lab with Dr. Xiaohong Yu, whose research involves genetic modification to the Camelina sativa plant to increase its production of fatty acid, which could supplement feed for livestock and act as a potential source of biofuel.

“My project focused on using different sets of genes to induce different effects in a plant that I was studying in order to try and increase the amount of oils that it was producing,” said Dongkai, who was running three separate experiments at the same time.

“One gene group was increasing the seed size that the plants produce, which is where the oils are mostly held,” he said. “One of them was increasing the amount of seeds and the other was trying to increase how much oil the plant was producing in the seeds and so we hope that using a combination of these three gene groups can lead to plant oils being a more viable energy source in the future.”

Dongkai always had an interest in biology and plans to pursue it in college. He hasn’t committed to a school yet, but his number one choice is Columbia University.

“[Biology] is the discipline of science that attracts me the most. I definitely want to major in biology and some sort of business and hopefully take that and apply that to either medicine or my own endeavors after college.”

Dongkai said even though he’s applied to science fairs and other competitions previously, applying to the Regeneron competition was very different.

“It’s really sort of getting a sense of the overall student, not just their project,” he said. “It asks you a lot about personal growth [and] how you’ve developed over these past few years.”

Derek said that he decided to apply for several reasons and is very proud of his achievement.

“One of such reasons was the aim of gaining a unique competitive research experience at the highest level in the nation,” he said. “Additionally, I wanted the research program at the high school to continue to produce exciting results and to give all future research students a better chance at competing in the same competition.”

Dongkai and Derek worked with the district’s science research teacher Dana Schafer to submit their applications. 

Ms. Schaefer worked as an academic researcher at various labs including Stony Brook University, Syracuse University and Brown University before becoming a teacher nine years ago.

“This program is bringing it all full circle essentially because I get to bring my students into the real authentic science that I came from,” she said.

The district’s director of math and science, Joseph Paolicelli, said that Dongkai and Derek’s achievement is a testament to the opportunities provided to their students.

“I think it shows that we’ve created an avenue or a pathway that allows students to be able to share their scientific voice at that level,” Mr. Paolicelli said. “I think by having Derek and [Dongkai] — whom we’re very proud of with their research — be able to exercise that voice at that platform is a testament to Ms. Schaefer’s efforts to try and make that avenue possible.”

District Superintendent Gerard Poole congratulated Dongkai, Derek, Mr. Paolicelli and high school principal Frank Pugliese on this achievement.

“The Regeneron application is the upper echelon, it is the pinnacle of science competitions in the entire United States of America and to have two of our students do all of the work, the preparation, submit a 20-page-plus high-level application for this is just phenomenal,” he said. “From my perspective, whether they place or win, I’m OK with that. The fact that they got that application together and could show what they did and what they were able to accomplish is absolutely amazing.”

Dongkai and Derek’s applications are now being scored by a panel of Regeneron’s Ph.D.-level evaluators and considered for top awards. The top 300 scholars will be announced in early January, and the top 40 finalists will be revealed in mid-January.