Newsday: Molloy faculty helps Siemens semi-finalists

Bill Crugnola, left, of Jericho High School, Jay Zussman, of Great Neck South High School, and Katie Mazalkova, of Valley Stream Central High School, all 17, at the Jack Morton Auditorium at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2014. Photo Credit: Evelyn Hockstein

By Joie Tyrrrell

Three Long Island high school seniors whose research may help fight cardiovascular disease or improve human reproductive health captured national honors Tuesday in the 2014 Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology, one of the country's most prestigious contests.

Team members Bill Crugnola, 17, of Jericho High School, and Katie Mazalkova, 17, of Valley Stream Central High School, took the $30,000 scholarship prize, while Jay Zussman, 17, of Great Neck South High School, earned a $20,000 scholarship in the individual category.

"I'm humbled to have competed among so many supremely talented individuals," Zussman told Newsday shortly after receiving his award. "This opportunity has been one-of-a-kind, and I will cherish it forever."

Mazalkova, while noting that "everyone aims for first place," said that "seeing how far our research has gotten us and that all of the hard work and sleepless nights have paid off is just amazing."

The scholarships were announced at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where 20 students from across the country -- six individuals and six teams, all winners of Siemens regional finals -- had spent the weekend, exhibiting their projects and presenting them to judges. The competition awards a total of $500,000 in scholarships.

The panel of judges was comprised of nationally renowned scientists and mathematicians, headed by lead judge Robert H. Miller, senior associate dean for research in GWU's School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

Taking the team grand prize of a $100,000 scholarship were Eli Echt-Wilson and Albert Zuo of Albuquerque, New Mexico, who won for their project titled "A Detailed Computational Model of Tree Growth."

Echt-Wilson and Zuo created a computer model that simulates how a tree will grow in varying conditions. Their research can replace long-term planting experiments.

"Eli and Albert were able to develop graphics that were so advanced, they enabled biological modeling for real trees and situations," said Randy Wayne, associate professor of agriculture and life sciences at Cornell University in upstate Ithaca. "Their paper changes the way I looked at trees. Eli and Albert are not production scientists, but rather original, innovative, skilled craftsmen who can work together to help solve a pressing challenge."

Echt-Wilson said he strives "to find applications of machine learning for not only scientific problems but also everyday challenges that affect the entire world."

Peter Tian of The Wellington School in Columbus, Ohio, took the $100,000 scholarship in the individual category for his project, "Extremal Functions of Forbidden Multidimensional Matrices."

Tian's research makes significant advancements in the theory of pattern avoidance for higher dimensional matrices, which may have applications in robot motion planning and wire routing in VLSI circuits.

"I am most passionate about mathematics and its applications to science and engineering," Tian said. "It is inspiring to see that something as intricate as math can both explain and be applied to our natural world."

This year, the scholarship winners were announced at The Atlantic magazine's event called "Full STEM Ahead," featuring experts and speakers on what future careers in STEM fields may look like and what impact they could have on the world.

Mazalkova and Crugnola worked in a Molloy College laboratory last summer as part of the college's research high school internship program in the biology, chemistry and environmental studies department.

The two students were among the first participants in the Molloy program, which has run for the past two summers.

Their study on atherosclerosis, which causes plaque to build up inside arteries, casts new light on stem cells that promote formation of the disease.

"They are both very hardworking students that have the potential to significantly contribute to biomedical research in their futures," said Jodi Evans, associate professor of biology at Molloy. "I am so very excited for them and very proud of them."

All three Long Islanders moved ahead to the national level after first being named semifinalists and then vying against other students who made it to the regional final at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, which was held last month.

John Woolford, a Carnegie Mellon biological sciences professor who judged Zussman's project, said the teenager is "very passionate about his science and ... improving reproductive health."

Woolford said Zussman's study into the mechanics of meiosis, a type of cell division in sexual reproduction, may help scientists better understand the onset of debilitating diseases.

This year marks the 15th anniversary of the Siemens Competition. A record 2,263 students submitted a total of 1,784 projects for consideration; 408 students were named semifinalists, with 97 being named regional finalists.

Last year, three George W. Hewlett High School students won the $100,000 grand prize in the team competition, making the high school the first ever in the Siemens contest to win back-to-back team victories.

Priyanka Wadgaonkar, JiaWen Pei and Zainab Mahmood found that plants with multiple copies of genes that help with ozone tolerance are more resistant to environmental impacts. Their findings held implications for effects from drought and pollution to salt and bacteria, potentially lessening crop losses.

In 2012, Hewlett High School seniors Jeremy Appelbaum, William Gil and Allen Shin won the team grand prize for their research pegged to a plant protein with potential for fighting cancer

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