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ASPIRE Students Among the Top Ten in at the Connecticut Science and Engineering Fair!

Thank you to Dr. Victoria Schulman, Science Faculty, Director of Science Research, for this recap:

Congratulations to the Advanced Science Program for Independent Research and Engineering (ASPIRE) students who excelled at the 2020 Connecticut Science and Engineering Fair (CSEF). The week-long fair was slated to occur on March 9-14 at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, CT, but the global coronavirus pandemic forced fair directors to convert the fair from a traditional in-person event to a virtual science fair for the students' safety. Nevertheless, despite these unconventional settings, King students prevailed in our first ever CSEF competition, an official preliminary for the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF).

ASPIRE Students Sammy Hillenmeyer '21, Ryan Heaton '21, Nadia Kucher '21, Wafa Nomani '21, and Joe Winterlich '21, along with nearly 700 other students from across the state, digitally submitted their research project posters from their internships at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Weill Cornell Medical College, the Burke Neurological Institute, Yale University, and other prestigious institutions for the preliminary round of competition. Their projects were silently judged by experts and professional researchers without student presentations.

On Wednesday, March 11, Sammy Hillenmeyer '21 and Ryan Heaton '21, both received 1st Honors in the preliminary round and qualified for the second round of competition – an honor bestowed unto only 115 (or 16%) of CSEF entrants. This round, which afforded Sammy and Ryan the opportunity to vie for a coveted spot at the ISEF competition, included a virtual presentation to the judges over the phone and internet, respectively. Considering these unusual circumstances, King was more than proud of their efforts and their adaptability in the face of uncertainty and unconventional newness.

The judges deliberated remotely for two days, and the awards were announced in a virtual YouTube-hosted awards ceremony on Saturday, March 14, to comply with social distancing directives mandated by state and federal governments.

King students looked on with suspense, and three ASPIRE students soared to the top!

CSEF has four categories of projects: 1) Life Sciences, 2) Biotechnology, 3) Physical Sciences, and 4) Engineering, and students can be eligible for more than one category if there is crossover in their project's subject area. For each category, the top ten students are acknowledged.

Ryan Heaton '21 was a Top 10 Finisher in both the Life Sciences and Biotechnology categories, earning not one, but two, medals for his Computer Science-based cancer research project for which he wrote code and taught a computer to diagnose subtypes of renal cell carcinoma (kidney cancer) using histology images with 97% accuracy, eliminating the all-too-common need for a "second opinion." His development also makes excellent health care diagnoses accessible to those who live in low-income areas where skilled pathologists are scarce.

Sammy Hillenmeyer '21 was not only a finalist and a Top 10 Finisher, but he also podiumed and earned 5th place in the Physical Sciences category, receiving an engraved plaque for his impressive work at Yale University, trying to convert methane (a gas fuel) to methanol (a liquid fuel) to reduce greenhouse emissions and mitigate climate change. Notably, Sammy was only four positions away from earning a spot on the CT delegation to the ISEF competition!

Joe Winterlich '21 was also a Top 10 Finisher in the Biotechnology category, earning a medal for his Microbiology-based project that seeks to identify a cure for the devastating Tuberculosis disease by using human and murine (mouse) proteins that have naturally occurring antibacterial properties. Joe had received 2nd Honors in the preliminary round of competition and was, thus, not considered for advancement to the ISEF competition; however, he was still among the Top 10 in the Biotechnology category and received well-earned recognition for the plethora of data he has accumulated over the last 10 months!

Collectively, this means that King students had a Top 10 finisher in every category in which we competed (we did not have any entrants in the Engineering category) and that King School occupied 10% of the finalist positions – a truly impressive showing!

Finally, along with Joe Winterlich '21, ASPIRE students Nadia Kucher '21 and Wafa Nomani '21, received 2nd Honors in the preliminary round of competition, which is the highest score a student can receive before qualifying to the second and final round of the competition.

This event marked King School's first-ever appearance at the prestigious CSEF competition. Podium finisher, Sammy Hillenmeyer, detailed the unusual circumstances for the event: "I'm really humbled to have placed 5th in my category, let alone even made it to the finals, [especially with] so much unknown in the process. We'd been practicing our presentations standing in front of our posters for weeks, but everything changed with the COVID-19 regulations. I got a call at 10:00 p.m. on Tuesday night and was told I'd be presenting to the panel of judges [virtually] at 8:00 a.m. the next morning. I wasn't sure if it was just a phone call or a video conference. All I knew was I'd be presenting from my bedroom, not Quinnipiac University, so I made sure I was ready and dressed for an interview – bow tie and all. It ended up just being a phone interview, but I had to be prepared for all possible scenarios."

Sammy continued, "I still have a lot of work to do on my project, but my supervisor was excited when I told him the news. There's so much incredible research going on at Dr. Hu's lab at Yale. I'm excited to be part of it."

Top 10 Finisher, Joe Winterlich, also commented, "The silent-judging format of CSEF was a new experience for all of us, but the shift to an online format made it even more unfamiliar. A big thanks, of course, must go to Dr. Schulman for helping us adapt to these changes and achieve this success!"

Next up for the ASPIRE students is the Fairfield County High School Science Fair hosted by Norwalk Community College (the NCC Fair) scheduled to be held on April 24, 2020. There, all nine current ASPIRE students, Harry Amadeo '20, Jacob Boyar '21, Sammy Hillenmeyer '21, Ryan Heaton '21, Nadia Kucher '21, Alex Lim '21, Wafa Nomani '21, Olivia Sheridan '20, and Joe Winterlich '21, have qualified to compete against the Top 100 students and projects from across the county for top honors. We wish them the best of luck!

The ASPIRE program is supported by the Advanced Mathematics and Science Study Program endowed fund established in 2018 by Margharet, Frank, Bea '15, and William '17 Nash to support select students with demonstrated ability and interest in achieving true excellence within science, technology, engineering and/or mathematics in global competition preparation, and/or laboratory research experiences. If you are interested in further supporting this opportunity for students, please contact the Development office to discuss how your gift can help.