Two Stuyvesant Seniors Place Top 300 in Regeneron Talent Search

Aiden Ackerman and Samuel Li placed in the top 300 of the Regeneron Science Talent Search.

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              Two Stuyvesant seniors, Aiden Ackerman and Samuel Li, recently placed in the top 300 out of the 2162 applicants to this year's Regeneron Talent Search. This prestigious competition was established in 1950 and involves an extensive research and paper-writing process. After designing and conducting an experiment, students are able to present their research on any STEM topic of their choice.

Li’s research involved causing mice to revert normal fat to more muscle like brown fat that helps to burn calories through the activation of muscle specific genes. His conclusion was that the mice were broadly able to achieve larger stores of brown adipose tissue without significant adverse effects when said muscle specific genes were turned on.

            Ackerman described how his ninth grade AP Biology teacher helped him join the competition. “As I approached the end of ninth grade, [biology teacher Jessica] Quenzer introduced me to [biology teacher] Jason Econome, an excellent teacher and lab mentor, which ultimately led to my participation and inclusion in STS (Science Talent Search) top 300,” Ackerman said.

Deciding to focus on spider silk, Ackerman chose to look into what characteristics allow for spider silk's unique properties. “How the amino acid sequence of a spider silk affects its physical properties and structure,” Ackerman said. “[As well as] how to study these spider silks more accurately, as well as pointing out patterns in the amino acids that could be studied in the future, to work on for generative models (A.I.) that will play a role in decoding these silks.”

Through his research, Ackerman was able to discover why spider silk is so uniquely durable yet manipulable.  “[I discovered] that polyalanines in the amino acid sequence increased tensile strength, and observing how beta-pleated sheets (a structure composed of amino acids along with hydrogen bonds which greatly improve the strength of proteins) in the 3D structure made the silk both flexible and tough” Ackerman said.

Ackerman’s research at the Research Science Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (RSI/MIT) has further motivated him to explore the world of micro and molecular biology. “Our lab contributes to the broader effort to decode the secrets of a material that could have groundbreaking implications in science, medicine, and clothing,” Ackerman said

Though Ackerman was successful in his research, it came with a few key difficulties, especially with preparing the computers he had access to for optimal protein modeling. “There were a lot of technical challenges, such as learning how to run simulations for the proteins virtually, and there were a lot of challenges initially with accessing different softwares as well as the computers that would run these simulations on campus (they took up a lot of space),” Ackerman said.

Through conquering these challenges, he found ways to develop better research skills. “I learned a lot about patience in research, as well as to find fixes for problems, because they are going to inevitably pop up. I also became more familiar with reading and breaking down articles for context and learning where I could undergo new research, as well as how to make graphs, charts, and how to format a paper,” Ackerman said.

Ackerman intends to carry on the skills he learned from the Regeneron talent search to college and beyond. “I hope to use these skills in college, to focus on medicine and biology, as I’ve applied to the Rutgers BS/MD Program, among others. I am particularly keen on exploring the intersection of biotechnology and global health, delving into the intricate process involved in developing therapeutics and understanding its impact on the health of people worldwide,” Ackerman said.

 The Regeneron competition also helped further Ackerman personal and academic growth. “Working at MIT, I was not the only student. As a part of the Research Science Institute, I was put with 99 other students from across the world, all of whom had different views of life. [...] Meeting other teens who were at the forefront of their fields motivated me to work even harder, to put in more work because I could be just as accomplished as them, and their encouragement helped too,”Ackerman said.

Ackerman is keen to credit all of the school officials and mentors who helped him achieve this massive accomplishment. “I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to my counselor, Ms. Sandra Brandan, who went above and beyond to create an environment during the past four years for me to focus on my research and studies. Without Ms. Brandan's aid, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to be a student of an outstanding teacher, Ms. Jessica Quenzer, my 9th-grade AP Biology teacher who first got me interested in research,” Ackerman said.

Mrs. Quenzer has routinely involved her students in biology research by having them participate in competitions such as DNA Day and Genes in Space. She also makes sure to give her students a foundation in techniques that would be useful for research. “Students learn how to perform the molecular biology techniques and can get matched with a lab. They should also be open to various experiences—it would be beneficial to learn bioinformatics skills, or gain skills in caring for animals,” Quenzer said.

Ackerman also detailed just how much Ms. Quenzer helped him tremendously throughout the process, “Ms. Quenzer worked to guide me through my 9th-grade AP Biology classes. She devoted her personal time to help us participate in various competitions such as the USABO and Genes in Spaces, among others. I will always remember how, after winning the two semifinals of USABO and GIS, Ms. Quenzer dedicated her weekends to teach me how to film for the finals. Additionally, she assisted us in preparing for the USABO final exam, contributing significantly to my growth in various ways. Also, thanks to: Ms. Brandan and Ms. Quenzer, who played crucial roles in my acceptance into RSI/MIT” Ackerman said.

Quenzer also stressed the importance of practical experience for freshmen interested in research. “If freshmen want to get into bio research, they should keep an eye out for opportunities. Getting practical experience is very important,”  Quenzer said.

In addition, Quenzer provided multiple suggestions for those interested in pursuing biology internships outside of school. “They could look into the Wild Bird Fund, which rescues injured birds and spread awareness about how urbanization impacts birds; high schoolers can volunteer to help. There are animal shelters in need of volunteers, and there is research going on about what factors can make a dog more adoptable, and shelter animal welfare. There is a dog cognition lab at Barnard and another one at College of Staten Island. There are various botanical gardens in this city with assorted programs,” she said.

Ackerman also has a piece of advice for being a prosperous researcher. “Above everything else: Find a supporting lab environment and develop strong relationships with other members,” Ackerman said. “Working in a supportive environment with people I could rely on for help and who I enjoyed being around was a main reason why I was able to do my research effectively.”