Kucher and Lin Named Regeneron Scholars

Kucher, Lin
Photo by Nancy Cao

Seniors Phillip Kucher and Sharon Lin were named Top Scholars of the Regeneron Science Talent Search, previously known as the Intel Science Talent Search, on Wednesday, January 4.

Lin’s project, “A Novel Multiparameter Optical Sensor Using CMOS Imaging and Remote Neural Networks for Microbial Analysis,” meets the intersection of computer science and environmental science. The project involved the development of an image recognition-based protocol that can be utilized for water-quality analysis. The protocol allows users to upload photos they have taken of particles within a water sample to determine whether it matches any pre-determined set of particles. Through image processing and machine learning, her project is able to determine the probability that the particle matches one of the pre-existing particles that has been identified within a data set or that the particle is simply just a pollutant within the water.

Lin has been interested in water quality ever since middle school. “It’s definitely been one of the fields of study that I’ve personally been very passionate about, primarily because of the high impact, and the fact that pollutants and our water quality account for millions of deaths every year,” she said.

Lin is eager to develop technology in this field, and saw the potential in integrating computer science, another one of her passions, into her solution. “I wanted to combine my interests in humanitarian work as well as in environmental science with the idea of creating an independent project in computer science that might serve some use to the greater community,” she said.

Her project began last summer, with the bulk of the work completed at home. She received help from mentors and researchers she had worked with through research internships at various universities in the past, but worked on it mostly independently. Having done computer science projects before, Lin started experimenting with machine learning, and tested various image recognition libraries in Python at the start of the project.

“Most of the research was done online to try to figure out how to implement the program, create the protocol, and then try to figure out how to detect the particles,” Lin said. She worked on configuring the image recognition program, as well as configuring different video parameters and determining the accuracy based on various data points she collected throughout the project.

Lin also entered her project into the Siemens Competition, where she was a Regional Finalist. However, there is still more to come. She entered her paper into the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium, the New York Engineering and Science Fair, and various journals, and is waiting to hear back from them. Both Lin and Kucher are waiting to hear if they will be named Regeneron Finalists for their respective projects; results will be announced on Tuesday, January 24.

Kucher’s project was titled “High-frequency Polymorphisms Found in Double-stranded DNA Viruses Suggest Coevolution with a Uniquely Diverse Set of Bacterial Hosts.” He studied the phiNFS bacteriophage, a type of virus, and discovered that it displays the quasispecies effect, a slow-growth pattern that allows it to outcompete similar specimen. Now, he is working on extending his research to water purification.

Kucher’s discovery was significant as the phiNFS bacteriophage was the first virus with double-stranded DNA that was found to exhibit this behavior. Through DNA sequencing, Kucher was able to determine that various mutations, which were found in high percentages of the test population, led to altered proteins, which in turn affected how the virus was able to bind to a host bacteria.

Kucher first became intrigued by this area of science when he stumbled across a book by Georgian scientist George Eliava. The book suggested that bacteriophages could be used for medical purposes by killing harmful bacteria in a host. However, this technique was soon dwarfed by the discovery of antibiotics in 1928. But as antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria have evolved, scientists are looking for new ways to combat diseases. “I saw bacteriophage therapy as the solution,” Kucher said.

After applying unsuccessfully to numerous labs that were doing work with bacteriophages, Kucher was admitted for a summer program at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland—provided that he completed a six-month training program in New York before going to work with the post-doctorates there.

Kucher conducted most of his research at the University and published an article with some of his fellow researchers. But when he arrived back home, he wanted to be able to continue his work.

“I was thinking about how else I could [use] bacteriophages,” Kucher said. He decided to use the skills of bacteriophage collection and amplification that he had gained in Belfast to work on a project to decontaminate water using the viruses. However, this turned out to be very expensive work, so Kucher assembled a committee of backers, which included sponsors from Cornell University, New York University, and members of Congress, to help him apply for a $225,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. If he wins the grant, Kucher will set aside some of the money to support training for Stuyvesant students so they can “carry this out and continue this project after I’m gone,” he said.

To this end, Kucher plans to create a Biotechnology Club to help students get research opportunities and to teach them “skills a scientist would need,” something he credited his own research with providing him.

Stuyvesant has still not quite made its comeback in its success in the competition since Dr. Jonathan Gastel, a former Stuyvesant research coordinator, left in 2013. However, Kucher and Lin both see potential in the restructuring of the school’s research community, and are eager to witness the community grow and thrive. “[Research coordinator Jason] Econome has done a fantastic job of rebuilding that community through work with the research club and other groups at Stuyvesant,” Lin said.

Lin did not take the Intel class last year, but Kucher did. He found the daily period for working on his research alongside  Econome very helpful. “I’ve worked pretty intensively with him [Econome] for the last year and a half,” he said.

Though the research process is often difficult, with determination and good guidance students can find success. “You just have to keep going,” Kucher said.

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