Amanda Holder, a Pierson Senior, was in her yard chatting with her dad last school year when she noticed something strange growing on a piece of wood.
“He was stacking wood and I saw this black stuff growing on a log and I said ‘Dr. Schumacher [her Pierson chemistry teacher] would like that,’” recalled Holder.
The bizarre black lichen, a mix of a fungus and algae, and her ensuing work studying its structure recently landed Holder a spot as a semifinalist in the renowned Intel Science Talent Search. The Intel search is a science contest for pre-college students around the country where they compete for $1.25 million in awards and scholarships. According to a press release distributed by the Sag Harbor School District last week, Holder was the only student on the East End of Long Island to place in the semi-finals.
Though Holder’s paper for the competition toted a lofty title, “Isolation and Structural Studies of the Biologically Active Component from Kretzschmaria deusta,” she said in a later interview her work begins with observing the natural world.
“When I am outside I am always looking around. It is interesting that our local environment could potentially produce the next big drug to cure cancer or the next big antibiotic,” remarked Holder.
While working under the tutelage of Dr. Robert Schumacher in the Methods of Research class and summer sciences program for the better part of last year, Holder was able to purify the compound found in the Kretzschmaria deusta, or the black lichen, determine its structure, identify its antibiotic properties and manipulate its molecules to increase its antibiotic potency. By changing the molecules, Holder said she hopes this compound could one day be more easily absorbed by the human body.
“What she found this year isn’t a new compound. We took that compound to change parts of it so that might answer questions about how it works to kill bacteria. It might increase the amount of bacteria it kills. If you are a pharmaceutical company this can help you design new drugs,” explained Dr. Schumacher.
Dr. Schumacher added this type of research is vital as there is a dearth of effective antibiotics. “Antibiotics are becoming useless because bacteria is evolving,” he said.
As part of her research, Holder collaborated with the University of Mississippi, which ran additional testing with state-of-the-art equipment that is beyond the reach of Pierson’s program. Although Pierson might not boast the facilities available at a top notch university, Dr. Schumacher noted the work his students complete is on par with graduate level studies. Their research is advanced compared to other high school programs because the students carry out and complete independent projects and learn in a hands-on environment, employing a trial by fire methodology.
“I think you would be hard pressed to find another program like this at another high school. Most of the people in college chemistry labs and hospitals are doing what we do. We have to do everything right in the classroom and if we don’t have a particular machine it slows down the process a little bit but it is better for learning. Necessity is the mother of invention,” pointed out Dr. Schumacher.
He added that a total of five Pierson students have placed in the competition with at least one placing every year in the last four straight years. Before the Methods of Research class was created, Pierson students had never made it to the Intel semifinals.
Though Dr. Schumacher is known throughout the district as inspiring a cadre of young minds by making science fun, he says the work in his research class takes a high level of dedication on the part of the student. Holder, said Dr. Schumacher, could be found in the laboratory on weekends, during her lunch break and free periods and after school. For Holder, science is about the magic of discovery and this in part fueled her desire to complete her research.
“It is the thrill of doing something that has never been done before,” remarked Holder. “I like the problem solving. It definitely isn’t smooth sailing. You have to do some tedious tasks over and over again. In the end, if you are successful … I can’t even describe it. It is just amazing.”
Of the 1,600 projects Intel received for the competition 300 students were semifinalists. As a semifinalist, Holder will receive a $1,000 award and an additional $1,000 will go towards Pierson, according to the competition’s website. On January 27, the 40 finalists will be announced and invited to compete in Washington D.C. in March from March 11 through 16.