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Scientists challenge high school students with protein

High school students came to Stony Brook to learn the importance of studying proteins. Chelsea Katz/The Statesman

Stony Brook University is on a mission to show high school students that proteins can be fun.

The Protein Modeling Challenge invited high school students from Long Island on Tuesday to learn about certain proteins while working side-by-side with professional research scientists.

Joan Kiely, the director of the Biotechnology Teaching Center and instructor in biochemistry, started the competition to provide outreach for the university, to show how proteins have three dimensions (rather than the two that students normally see in textbooks) and to show the fun of it all.

“The goal in setting up this program is to give area high school students the opportunity to work with scientists to foster relationships,” Kiely said.

This year’s competition focused on the MET protein,  an oncogene, which is  a cancer-causing agent. Students were challenged to write an essay before competition about MET where they discussed what the protein was and what it does. One of the essays compared Met to a traffic light. In addition, they built a model of the protein. On competition day, the students took an exam about the protein and built another model to prove that they understand the protein.

To learn about the MET protein, students had access to the Protein Data Bank, which allows people to share what they have learned about various proteins through crystallography.

Drug companies are trying to make inhibitors of the MET protein to treat cancer. The protein is also linked to human embryonic development, according to the challenge’s event page on Stony Brook’s website.

Astellas Pharma in Farmingdale, N.Y. sponsors the yearly competition and sends scientists to judge and interact with the students. Earl May, a senior research investigator at Astellas Pharma, said that the company funded the competition as a contribution to the local community.

During lunchtime, scientists from Astellas Pharma sat with the competitors to discuss the protein of the day and work in research.

The winners received a certificate, a medal and a chance to tour Astellas Pharma.
The first place prize went to the team of Friends Academy in Locust Valley, while Mount Sinai High School won second place, and John F. Kennedy High School of the Bellmore-Merrick school district took home third. In addition, students were able to nominate their favorite protein model for the “People’s Choice Award.” Farmingdale High School won this award.

During the competition, Ellen Li, professor of medicine and microbiology and molecular genetics and wife of SBU President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., gave a presentation to the high school’s faculty advisors about mentoring high school students in science research. She noted the university’s success in mentoring the Intel Science Talent Search competition.
She also spoke about issues she has encountered while mentoring high school students, what she personally looks for in research students – specifically those who pay attention to detail and are not addicted to video games – and “commiserated about behavior” with the high school teachers.

The Protein Modeling Challenge, hosted by the Center for Science and Mathematics Education, started four years ago. The first competition had about 20 teams with up to three students each. CESaME set a cap of 34 teams per year. Since then, the challenge has reached the cap during the second, third and fourth years of competition.
CESaME has contacts with all of the local area high schools. Many of the teachers who bring students to compete take courses at SBU. In addition, science chairs have a list of events.

“My chairperson got a piece of paper and passed it along for me,”  Angela Stone, the advisor for the New Hyde Park Memorial High School team, said. “I needed stuff to do with my students.”

Stone’s students constructed their model of the Met protein and wrote their essays almost entirely on their own. This is New Hyde Park Memorial High School’s third year competing in the challenge.

Stone told her colleague Arnold Kamhi at Elwood-John Glenn High School, who then entered his students in the competition.

The Cold Spring Harbor High School team has been involved with CESaME since the first challenge. CSHHS offers a course called “Molecular Genomics” at the DNA Learning Center, the high school’s portion of the lab.

“One of our units is protein modeling,” team advisor Jaak Raudsepp said.
Any high school can compete in the Protein Modeling Challenge, regardless of whether they are a public or private school.

The Protein Modeling Challenge at Stony Brook is a modified version of the Science Olympiad Protein Modeling event created by the Center for BioMolecular Modeling at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, according to CESaME’s website.

“There are lots of ways to get students involved in education, such as competition,” CESame director David Bynun said.

According to CESaME’s website, since the first challenge, nine schools have started extracurricular programs in protein modeling.

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