For the second year in a row, two seniors at the Stella K. Abraham High School for Girls in Hewlett Bay Park, L.I., were national finalists in the prestigious Siemens Westinghouse Competition in Math, Science and Technology. But this time, it was not necessary to explain their need to make their presentation before the Sabbath and for glatt kosher food.
"It wasn’t an issue at all this year," said Rebecca P. Isseroff, a chemistry teacher and the students’ research adviser. "There was a lot of discussion last year because it was the first time Orthodox students had won the Siemens contest. But ultimately, Siemens made every accommodation. … After blazing the trail last year, they knew" what to do this year.
The winning students, Rikki Frenkel, 17, of Cedarhurst and Michal Simpser, 17, of Plainview, were permitted to make their formal rehearsal presentations on Friday instead of Saturday with the other national finalists. All of the students made their actual presentations on Sunday, Dec. 8, before a panel of 11 judges in Washington, D.C.
Isseroff pointed out that prior to being selected national finalists, Frenkel and Simpser won the regional competition during presentations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Because those presentations were held on Saturday, they were permitted to deliver theirs on Friday. Joining them was another team of Orthodox high school girls, their classmates, Abigail Maller of Great Neck and Lauren Goldstein of Holliswood, Queens, both 17.
"There were only three teams in the regional finals and there could be only one winner," Isseroff said. "The judges said it was very close."
Last year’s winners, Shira Billet of Woodmere and Dora Chana Sosnowik of Lawrence, both 17, came in first place in the team competition. This year, Frenkel and Simpser came in sixth out of 1,142 students who entered the competition, including 836 individuals and 306 teams.
"I’m really happy," said Simpser. "It was great to get that far. I was ecstatic when I heard we could even go to the regionals. Everything past that was like topping on the cake. It was great."
Frenkel said the whole experience was "amazing."
"We totally didn’t expect to win at all," she said. "It was just amazing where we placed, and we got to meet a lot of interesting people."
With their parents in the audience, the two delivered a 12-minute Power Point presentation that included photographs of their findings, charts and graphs of their data, and suggestions of how their findings could be used. They then went into a private room with the judges, where they were questioned for 10 minutes about their findings.
For their project, the students used an atomic force microscope to take proteins that only exist in natural form in the body and put them on a negatively charged polymer to see their reaction. (The cellular membrane of the body is also negatively charged.)
"Once you take proteins out of the body, where they exist as fibers, they bunch up and form globs," Frenkel explained.
It took two or three days after the proteins were placed on the polymers, but eventually the proteins returned to their fibrous state. The students tested different protein mixtures and added environmental additives like iron and discovered that they distorted the fibers.
"It was cool, very interesting to see how different things react, how tiny these structures are and how they exist," Frenkel added.
Both students said they did not know which college they would attend next year, and both voiced interest in studying medicine. They will each receive a $5,000 college scholarship from Siemens.
Isseroff credited a parent in the school, Miriam Rafailovich, director of the Garcia Center for Materials Research at the State University at Stony Brook, for the students’ success. Rafailovich runs a summer research program at the center for high school students and Frenkel and Simpser worked on their project for five months.
Isseroff said she also joined a program for teachers at the center that is funded by the National Science Foundation.
"It brings me up to date on research techniques so that I can better understand what the girls are doing," she said.
Simpser said it is hoped their research can be used in healing wounds. She said that since it was shown that cells can be made to adhere to a surface, perhaps a living bandage could be created to help a wound clot and heal faster.