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Pierson Student Moves On to Intel Semi-Finals

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Sam Miller horizontal adjusted

By Claire Walla

It’s hard to think of anything less pleasant-sounding than sooty mold.

And yet, for Pierson High School student Sam Miller, this dry, charcoal-colored bacteria has proven to have numerous positive qualities. For one, it’s allowed Miller to carry on what’s been an annual Pierson High School tradition for seven years running: this month, Miller was named one of 300 Intel Science Talent Search (STS) semi-finalists from across the country.

Miller earned this distinction for his work in identifying anti-bacterial properties in sooty mold, or scorias spongiosa to the scientific community, a fungus that’s found growing on beech trees.

Miller began working on this project in his junior year, as part of Dr. Robert Schumacher’s scientific research class. Typically, research students will work on projects that are, in a sense, a continuation of the work done by previous students. For example, former Pierson student Ailish Bateman had already proven back in 2005 that sooty mold had anti-fungal properties. So Miller tested it for its antibacterial qualities.

“The first step is we soaked it in methanol,” Miller explained. “That basically extracts the organic compounds out of the mold itself. Then, we’ll filter that and run it through chromatography tests.”

That process essentially breaks the compounds further down into smaller materials called fractions.

“I broke it down into 70 different fractions,” Miller said. “Basically, when we got to the pure form, we sent it off to the University of Mississippi [UM] and they ran a series of NMR [Nuclear Magnetic Resonance] tests on it. Then, by analyzing a series of data, we were able to figure out the molecular structure.”

Thanks to teachers Robert Schumacher and his brother Richard Schumacher, who co-teach Pierson’s class on scientific research, Pierson has been able to develop a working relationship with UM. In exchange for the use of UM’s lab equipment, Dr. Rob Schu (as he’s more commonly known) said Pierson is expected to share its findings with the school, which will conduct further testing on the compound.

And now that Pierson students have identified two very important chemical compounds in the bacteria — one anti-fungal, the other anti-bacterial — Dr. Schumacher said the school is ready to hand its sooty mold findings over to UM so that the university can patent the information and begin further testing.

According to Miller, “It could go through a series of drug testing, which would take an enormous amount of time.” But, should the compound successfully work to combat certain diseases, “It could become an antibiotic medicine.”

Dr. Schumacher explained that the anti-fungal compounds found in sooty mold are some of the most powerful antibiotics to work against an infection called Candida, otherwise known as thrush. He added that this could be particularly important for AIDS patients and people undergoing chemo therapy — who often develop thrush during the course of treatment — because this compound “seems to have a tremendous ability to stave off that type of infection.”

According to Dr. Schumacher, the next step on the pharmaceutical trail would be animal testing, which he said could begin sometime within the next year.

Miller’s work is so important, he added, because researchers need that structure in order to conduct thorough tests on the compound. With the molecular structure all mapped out, Dr. Schumacher said, “Now we know the compound, its structure, its activity… Now someone can take that information — even if it’s already a known compound — and then work to manipulate parts of that molecule to make it more active or more safe.”

He continued to say that Miller’s findings are particularly significant. Miller in fact tested the anti-bacterial compound he discovered against another antibiotic (he believes it was streptomycin) “and it was even more active than that,” Dr. Schumacher said. “Even the compound he isolated, [researchers] have not reported any activity on it. So, Sam’s definitely going to have a scientific journal with his name on it!”

Miller confessed, however, that this is probably not the start of a budding chemical or pharmaceutical career. With early admissions to Cornell University already under his belt, Miller said he planned to study computer science.

“This is probably a one-time thing,” he said of the project. “It was a good experience, and if I had to switch majors, yeah, maybe I would do this. You never know.”

Alexa Lantiere

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web convo Lantiere Vertical

By Claire Walla

Last semester, if you couldn’t find Pierson High School Senior Alexa Lantiere, chances are she was in Dr. Schumacher’s science lab studying sea sponges. An atypical way for most Pierson students to spend their free time, Lantiere was figuring out the chemical make-up of a rare sponge for a paper she wrote called “Isolation and Structural Assignment of a Biologically Active Sesterterponoid From the Marine Sponge Collospongia.” This semester, her hard work has paid off. Lantiere is a semi-finalist for this year’s National Intel Science Talent Search.

The senior, who plans to study pre-med next year at university, spoke about her project from inside the lab where it all began.

How did you choose your topic for the Intel contest?

We started [this project] when we were told about the sponge from the curator at Atlantis [Marine World]. Usually there are different species of sponge throughout the aquarium, but they don’t grow all over the place because animals inhibit their growth. This one — it’s called Collospongia, that’s the genus — was the opposite. It was becoming a menace.

So, using methanol, you were able to extract all the compounds from the dry sponge, and then the idea was to study those compounds after you got them free from the sponge?

Yeah. We had to keep simplifying them and purifying [the substance] so we could get just one compound. First we [purified the substance] two times with flash chromatography. Then, once we got down to [a level] that we thought was starting to get pretty pure, we separated it out and did the trituration, which formed crystals. Those crystals were an indication of the pure compound.

Are you impressed with yourself for knowing all this terminology?

Yeah, I guess it’s cool.

What was the most exciting part about doing the research and the experimentation for you?

I think the most exciting part was definitely when we got the crystals because we got the compound and we were pretty sure it was pure. We were able to send it to [the University of] Mississippi and that’s when we knew we definitely had a project.

It must have been kind of nerve-racking before that point. Science requires a lot of experimentation and you never know if it’s going to work out. Did you feel at any point, like, “I hope this works?”

Yeah. We were getting close to the deadline and we had to work a lot. I was working extra [class] periods in September and October, and the project was due in November. So, we were pretty much rushing a lot of the time.

Did it ever seem way too laborious?

No. I was excited. I was always happy to work on it. I mean, some of the machines are boring. Doing the same thing over and over is not very fun. But, it was definitely worth it and I had a great time doing it.

What are the implications of your findings?

After we got the compound, we tested it for antimicrobial activity and it was positive for that, so that has implications to become a medicine or an antibiotic, depending on how it works out. But, we’re not really going to get into that. A university or someone else will have to take that part on. The compound also had anti-fouling properties.

What does that mean?

An example is, like on boats they put heavy metals to make sure nothing grows on the boat. It’s the kind of thing that inhibits anything from growing on [a given surface]. We think that’s also why the sponge didn’t have anything growing on it, because it had this compound that was so astringent.

Where does your passion for science come from? Are your parents science-y?

No. I don’t have any history of scientists in my family. A lot of people I’ve met, especially [those] going into pre-med, either know someone who’s a doctor or their parents are doctors. So, I think it’s nice that I can do it without any other kind of inspiration — just myself.

Do you think your parents understand all the research and experimentation you did for this project?


Not really. My Dad was telling me what he told someone the project was about, and it was… not very right.

What did he say?

He said that we got an enzyme from the sponge and that we tested it on rats. We never had rats! We never had mice!

Did you promptly correct him?

Yeah. So now, hopefully, he won’t make anything else up.

Student Has Eye on Science Prize

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Pierson High School’s Andrew Mitchell has been named a semifinalist for the Intel science competition — a national competition that gives scholarships and other prizes for high school seniors who excel in many different areas of science.

“I really enjoy science and chemistry,” said the Pierson senior who joined in the research at the school last year and has been working with fungus and molds.

Mitchell’s work is a continuation of research that began about five years ago in Pierson’s chemistry lab under the direction of Dr. Robert Schumacher, the high school chemistry teacher.

“We find out what compounds the fungus produces that have medicinal properties,” explained Dr. Schumacher. “Andrew’s research provided two new members of the scoriosins and provided more material for further biological evaluation.”

In 2005, it was then-Pierson senior Ailish Bateman who first made it into the list of top 40 Intel finalists for the fungus project. Schumacher said that she submitted only one structure and more data was required to prove the structure.

In 2008, senior Josephine Thiele isolated six new scoriosin type antibiotics and was an Intel semifinalist. Mitchell has subsequently isolated two new members of the scoriosin family of antibiotics and synthesized them to prove the structure and provide more material for biological testing.

All the projects together provided the necessary data to publish the work in a scientific journal. 

“This further proved Ailish and Josie’s structures and provided new data about the mode of activity,” Dr. Schumacher said of Mitchell’s work.

The paper will be published later this year in collaboration with Dartmouth College and the University of Mississippi and with all three students as co-authors.

All across the U.S., hopeful students wait for the response from the organizers of the Intel competition — from late November when students submit applications to mid-January, when the semifinalists are announced. Last Wednesday, Mitchell learned that he was an Intel semifinalist.

“I had to write five 300-word essays, and include it with my resume in a pack,” Mitchell said. He also submitted his 13-page research report. “They take your SAT scores and information from the guidance department too.”

Mitchell is one of 300 Intel semifinalists named from 1,698 applicants around the country. He has been awarded a $1,000 scholarship for being named a semifinalist, and Pierson High School will also receive an equal amount. Next Wednesday, 40 finalists will be announced and if Mitchell is included in that list, he will receive another $5,000, a lap top computer and a trip to the White House where he will have one on one time with the scientists who will determine his overall knowledge of the research. The top Intel prize is a $100,000 college scholarship.

 “I am really proud of the science program and the hard work the teachers have put in,” said Pierson vice principal Gary Kalish.

“Our science department is very strong, and I would like to particularly recognize Dr. Schumacher for the mentoring of Andrew,” added Sag Harbor School District Superintendent Dr. John Gratto. “If there is any further way the school can help them – we will.”

Dr. Schumacher noted that Pierson has been the only high school on the East End in the last five years to have semifinalists in the 67-year-old science competition. According to Dr. Schumacher, the organizers of the competition require a lot of personal information about the student’s history, grades and other achievements.

For his part, Mitchell is hopeful that this research will help him increase his chances of getting into Dartmouth College.

“I would like to pursue this research after high school,” Mitchell said, “I loved the whole idea of the project.”

“I would like to thank Dr. Robert Schumacher for his constant guidance and positive reinforcement,” wrote Mitchell in his research report. “I thank him the most for never giving me a direct answer and always making me find the answer myself.”