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ACPS Students Earn 46 Science Awards, Including Both “Grand Award” Honors, One with Applications for COVID-19

DATE: April 9, 2020
CONTACT: Helen Dunn, Legislative and Public Affairs Officer
PHONE: 434-249-8379

Albemarle County Students Earn 46 Science Awards, Including Both “Grand Award” Honors, One with Applications for COVID-19

(ALBEMARLE COUNTY, Virginia) – Albemarle County Public Schools students earned both Grand Awards at the 39th annual Virginia Piedmont Regional Science Fair (VPRSF) held on March 4 in John Paul Jones Arena at the University of Virginia. One of the Grand Award-winning projects, that of sophomore Katharina Ravichandran, examines the effectiveness of quarantine, hygiene and vaccinations in dealing with infections like COVID-19. Overall, students from Albemarle, Western Albemarle, and Monticello high schools received 46 awards at the show, including nine first-place awards in the 17 show categories. Students from Sutherland and Henley middle schools received eight awards in their division, including first place in Computer Science, Environmental Sciences, and Environmental Management.

Meena Ambati, an Albemarle High School sophomore, won a Grand Award and first place in Medicine & Health Sciences for her project, “Triangulating Fluoxetine Into a Novel Macular Degeneration Therapy via Biochemical, in Vivo & Big Data Approaches.” There is no FDA-approved treatment for dry macular degeneration. Meena discovered that Fluoxetine, a drug already approved by the FDA for treating clinical depression, protects the retina, and could be repurposed for dry macular degeneration as potentially the first treatment for this disease.

“Dry macular degeneration affects 200 million people around the world and causes irreversible blindness,” said Alan Tarrab, Meena’s science teacher at Albemarle High School. “Meena’s work on a potential new use for Fluoxetine is promising and gives people hope that they will literally see the light,” he said.

The second Grand Award was earned by Katharina Ravichandran, an Albemarle High School sophomore, for her first-place project in Mathematical Sciences. Her study, “Application of Mathematical Modeling to Herd Immunity,” focused on identifying the minimum percentage of the population that needs to be vaccinated to achieve protective herd immunity for measles. “Herd immunity” is a population's resistance to the spread of an infectious disease due to a sufficiently high proportion of individuals that are vaccinated/immune, and it is critical to protect the immunocompromised, who cannot be vaccinated. By simultaneously considering 13 different parameters, she found that a minimum of 93% of the population has to be vaccinated to achieve the herd immunity necessary to protect the immunocompromised and the greater population.

Of Katharina’s work, Tarrab said, “Kat’s incredibly timely work showcases the importance of compulsory vaccinations and the very real threats posed to societies by communicable diseases.” He went on to explain, “Kat's model could be applicable to new infectious diseases such as COVID-19.”

Katherina said of her work, “When I started this project, I wanted to take an approach that would help predict outcomes even when it would be impossible to know anything with total certainty. The model that I used can be directly translated to novel coronavirus because it aims to determine the efficacy of quarantine, vaccinations, hygiene measures, and more in the treatment of viruses like COVID-19.”

Meena and Katharina automatically qualified for the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair and are receiving $2,000 scholarships from VPRSF.

Also among the first-place winners are:

  • James Henter of Monticello High School, who won in the Biochemistry category for his study on pain relief. In this experiment, he compared different formulations of three pain medications using simulated stomach acid and intestinal fluid. His teacher is Corinne Lindemann.
  • Krishan Perumal of Albemarle High School, whose teacher is Alan Tarrab and who won in the category of Cellular & Molecular Biology. In this study, used CRISPR & viral approaches were examined in order to better understand novel osteogenic genes.
  • In the Materials & Bioengineering category, Darrah Sheehan and Kimball Sheehan of Western Albemarle High School. They won for their investigation of the tumoricidal effects of sound therapy on malignant brain tumors. Their teacher is Carol Stutzman.
  • For the Environmental Management category, Emily Chang and Calel Colon of Albemarle High School. Chang and Calel took first for their examination of the prevention of climate change-induced flooding in pipe infrastructure on the coast. Their teacher is Adrian Lorenzoni.
  • Opeyemi Balogun, Anya Le, and Kevin Lee of Albemarle High School, all taught by Alan Tarrab. They won the Environmental Sciences category for their project that mapped the sources of microplastics in rivers and streams.
  • Charlie Vavrik of Albemarle High School. His win in the Plant Sciences category addressed accessions of flowers and bacteria recruitment. His teacher is Alan Tarrab.
  • In the junior division, three Sutherland Middle School entries won first place for their projects. In the Computer Science Category, Sara Czirjak, Veronica Vitko, and Amalia Keshap won for their project called, “Hedbanz Strategy.” In Environmental Management, Suah Kwon won for a study on the decomposition of peroxide in wastewater, and William Barber won the Environmental Sciences category for a study on plastic waste. These students are all taught by Diana McCullough.

According to the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair, millions of students worldwide compete each year in local and school-sponsored science fairs. The winners of these events go on to participate in Society-affiliated regional and state fairs in order to qualify for the international event.

Approximately 1,800 high school students from more than 75 countries, regions and territories participate in the international fair to showcase their independent research and compete for up to $4 million in prizes.

The 2020 Awards Program, including a complete list of award recipients from the 39th annual Virginia Piedmont Regional Science Fair, is available online at http://vprsf.org/fair-information/award-winners/.

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