At 4 she became part of history as the patient in a medical experiment — the recipient of a then-rare cornea transplant.
At 16, she made history again, because of a medical experiment she had conducted.
Taylor Bernheim, a junior at Ramaz day school in Manhattan, last week was named winner of a $50,000 second prize in the annual Siemens Westinghouse science competition.
Bernheim and her collaborator, Jessica Fields, a senior at Jericho High School, designed an innovative and low-cost polymer-based method for developing human tissue that may be used in organ transplants.
The pair, inspired by a lecture they heard last summer at a conference at Stony Brook University, worked on the project through the fall at the school’s Garcia Center.
Bernheim, a contributor to The Jewish Week’s Fresh Ink youth supplement who hopes for a journalism or medical-related career, says she was attracted to scientific research because of her own background: three eye surgeries as a child on her cataract-stricken right eye, which left her with severe astigmatism, and vision in the affected eye estimated at 20-2,000. “I see two images — it’s hard to focus. I can see colors. I can see shapes,” she says. She is dependent on her 20-20 left eye.
Bernheim says she has not allowed her visual disability, which forced her to wear an eye-patch for eight years and continues to make concentration difficult, to harm her academic or social advancement.
“It was never something that held me back,” says Bernheim, a resident of Holliswood, Queens. She is an A-plus student at Ramaz, fluent in Hebrew and Spanish, an active member of the Bnei Akiva and NCSY youth groups, a dancer who leads a Ramaz-based troupe that entertains at nursing homes.
“She has always wanted to be at the same level as everyone else,” not wanting special treatment because of her medical condition, says her mother, Esther. But, at the same time, she added, “She is more sensitive and compassionate to people who have disabilities.”
Bernheim’s partner, Jessica Fields, also Jewish, also was drawn to medical research for personal reasons: her older sister’s encounter with juvenile diabetes.
“We worked extremely hard,” conducting repeated experiments at Stony Brook during the summer and preparing for the Siemens Westinghouse regional and national presentations in recent months, Bernheim says. “If you want something enough, if you’re passionate enough, you do whatever it takes.”
She and Fields each receive $29,000 from the regional and national competitions. “That’s scholarship money,” Bernheim says.
Their research is still at the early stage, she says, adding that it’s unlikely to help develop a new lens for her right eye.
Bernheim says she is working for “future generations,” for other kids. “I want to help the research. I don’t want the kids of the future to go through what I went through.”