Upper school student and ASPIRE scientist Yuriy Sandmeier ’23 has created a combination therapy to treat tuberculosis (TB) infections, and until this breakthrough, the disease was resistant to drug treatments. His accomplishment recently earned top marks at the Connecticut Science & Engineering Fair, and the story behind the research is as powerful as the breakthroughs he is generating.
“One of the reasons I was so interested and heavily invested in research on TB was because of the death of my biological parents from tuberculosis some 15 years ago when I was just a young boy in an impoverished community in Russia,” said Yuriy, who was 2 when his parents died. Yuriy spent the following four years in an orphanage before being adopted at six and brought to the United States.
Yuriy’s research is part of an internship at Rockefeller University through King’s ASPIRE Program.
“When I was researching labs to work in, this was definitely one of the thoughts running through my mind,” he said. “I wanted to research the disease that left me orphaned and hopefully help others from going through the same thing that I went through.”
In his study, Yuriy found that suppressing a gene in combination with a ribosome-targeting small molecule would stop the growth of the bacteria that causes TB. King’s Director of Science Research, Dr. Victoria Schulman, who oversees the ASPIRE program, emphasized how extraordinary Yuriy is as a scientist and researcher.
“His success is amazing, period,” said Schulman. “And he's doing it as a teenager, in high school. But what I think gave him a little bit of an edge is the ‘why’ behind his work.”
Despite being driven by the loss of his parents and knowing what he wanted to study, entering ASPIRE took some convincing.
“Yuriy began very timidly,” said Schulman. “In fact, he had to be urged to even apply to the ASPIRE program.”
The ASPIRE course focuses on math and science research techniques, providing methods to help students further understand how research is conducted. In conjunction with the class, students attend an internship at a top-tier R01-level research laboratory to get hands-on experience in modern scientific research.
The start of Yuriy’s internship at Rockefeller University coincided with COVID shutdowns. The timing served as a silver lining.
“Possibly a blessing in disguise, Yuriy's internship was drastically impacted by COVID, and he had to work remotely for the first summer of his two-year internship,” said Schulman. “Working at home over Zoom with his mentor gave him a chance to learn the ropes and gain confidence. When his internship finally shifted to in-person lab work at Rockefeller University, he had gained confidence in his abilities to perform high-level research. With this, he was able to really shine and produce a mountain of data in a very short amount of time.”
In March, Yuriy was one of roughly 700 students presenting work at the Connecticut Science & Engineering Fair. He was shocked when his project was called out as the winner of the Life Sciences Category. Winning meant he could continue his research, and his work would advance to an international level of competition. As he reeled in silence, his screaming peers shattered the stillness, and the reality of what was happening dawned on him.
“While I have done well at competitions as part of the ASPIRE program, I never thought I would be the one to win the Connecticut Science and Engineering Fair,” he said.
The Connecticut Science & Engineering Fair is a yearly, statewide science and engineering fair aimed at attracting young people to careers in science and engineering while developing skills essential to critical thinking. The event was held at Quinnipiac University.
ASPIRE students Antonia Kolb ’24, Gouri Krishnan ’23, Ben Persily ’23, and Ryan Wempen ’24 also presented award-winning research at the event.
Yuriy is one of seven delegates from Connecticut who will advance to the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair in Dallas next month, where 1,800 high school students from around the world will present their research.
Dr. Schulman is thrilled by all of the research the ASPIRE students are producing. “I have never been more proud of my students before,” she said. “Yuriy and his peer students are truly changing the world with their genius innovations, and I am just so thrilled to be a part of their journey. I know this is only the beginning for him and for all of them.”