Portsmouth Abbey student earns top prize at R.I. Science and Engineering Fair for fifth consecutive year, to compete in International Fair

Above (l-r): Susan McCarthy, Ryan Ma, Isabella Li, Sauroo Park, Jennifer Shon and Stephen Zins.

Portsmouth Abbey School Fifth-Formers Xingchuan “Ryan” Ma, Jimin “Jennifer” Shon, Enyu “Alaina” Zhang, Xingyi “Isabella” Li and Sauroo Park submitted research projects to the 2024 Rhode Island Science and Engineering Fair (RISEF) along with students from 23 other high schools in the state. Ma and Shon placed in the top 10, and Shon took home the “Best in Fair” title. Li and Zhang won First Grant titles and six special awards, respectively, and Park received a Second Grant title as well as two special awards. This was the fifth consecutive year that an Abbey student has won Best in Fair.

RISEF awards each project a Third Grant, Second Grant or First Grant, with First Grant being the highest honor. The top 10 First Grants are named Best-in-Fair finalists. The top two Best-in-Fair candidates will travel to Los Angeles in May to represent Rhode Island at the Regeneron International Science and Engineering fair, the world’s largest pre-college STEM competition. Top prizes include a $75,000 scholarship as well as funds for the winning student’s school.

Representatives from the U.S. Military, Governor McKee’s office and other organizations were present at the recent RISEF Awards Ceremony to congratulate students and deliver their trophies. 

Best in Fair: “Save the Bees! Effect of Alloferon on the Survival Rate and Flight Performance of Honey Bees (Apis Mellifera)” by Jennifer Shon.

Childhood beekeeping experiences sparked Shon’s fascination with bees, their social hierarchy, cognitive ability and interesting language. Alarmed by current research showing a decline in honey bee population by up to 50 percent—due to poor nutrition, pesticides, climate change, and varroa mites—she chose her project to help enhance the survival and locomotion of honey bees, as well as their flying activity by feeding them alloferon—an insect-derived peptide with known immunological effects. 

After attaining a list of 13,000 RNA sequences, Shon found that alloferon-fed honey bees had a survival rate increase of more than 50 percent, largely due to locomotive behavior. To verify her research, Shon conducted her own experiment using RT-qPCR to test honey bee flight performance using a flight mill, in addition to conducting SEM analysis. She found the muscle fiber counts of alloferon-fed bees had increased. 

“I was literally jumping out of my chair when I finally analyzed all the data, which was like piecing jigsaw puzzles, and it seemed like the overexpression of locomotion-related genes was the reason behind the increase in both the survival rate and activity of the bees that were fed alloferon,” Shon said.

In addition to winning the Best In Fair title, Shon earned the American Chemical Society, Rhode Island Chapter award for an outstanding Chemistry-related project and the Jackson Memorial Award for the most outstanding project in the Biological Sciences.

Best in Fair Top 10 Finalist: “Hemin as a Novel Targeted Therapy for Glioblastoma via the Integrated Stress Response” by Ryan Ma.

RISEF’s 2023 Best in Fair winner, Ma, chose this year’s project to explore treatment methods for glioblastoma (GBM), a highly malignant brain tumor. Citing current research, Ma said ineffective surgery, radiation and chemotherapy fail to completely remove the tumor mass and cannot distinguish cancerous from normal brain cells, causing collateral damage to healthy tissue and disease recurrence. He set out to develop novel therapeutic strategies—including repurposing Hemin, an HRI (Heme-regulated inhibitor) to precisely target hypoxia-induced glioma stem cells in GBMs—to improve patient prognosis by disrupting the aggressive tumor microenvironment.

Ma noted an unexpected finding, “In a specific patient-derived cell cluster, a cell cycling kinase (CDKN2A) is down-regulated, and a ciliated cell marker (HYDIN) represents an inverse relationship between cell cycling and cell migration. This further investigated the relationship between hypoxia and stemness in my project.”

He most enjoyed performing the wet lab experiments with real cells this year, rather than all the previous computational work, to test the drug’s efficacy.  

Dr. Stephen Zins, head of the School’s Science Department, said, “This year's projects reflect an intentional integration between our internal grant program and external independent research. Our students understand that they can do things here and will be supported, but, ultimately, they are driven by their own curiosities and ambition. I'm most impressed with how confident and ambitious our students are. No project is ‘too hard’ for them, and they embrace jumping into the unknown.”

In addition to earning a First Grant award, Zhang received five special awards for her project studying the use of sugar kelp as a biofilter for wastewater treatment. They are as follows: The NASA Earth Systems Science Award, the Narragansett Bay Commission’s Excellence Award, the Southeastern New England Marine Educator’s Award and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Award for Innovation. Read more about her project in a previous article.

Park earned a Second Grant for her project entitled, “Generation of Infrared Images or Celestial Objects Using Artificial Intelligence Techniques,” and was recognized by the U.S. Air Force and Skyscrapers, Inc., the Amateur Astronomical Society of Rhode Island. 

Li earned a First Grant as well as a special award from the Society for In Vitro Biology for her project making nano-vaccines for cancer antigens, which was inspired by a family member lost to cancer.

Science teacher Susan McCarthy, said, “The five Abbey students did an excellent job at RISEF. Their projects are all creative, well-researched, and completed at a very high level. I am so proud of them and their well-deserved recognition.”