Two seniors at John F. Kennedy High School, in the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District, have been named semifinalists in the 2023 Society for Science & Public Science Talent Search competition, sponsored by the pharmaceutical company Regeneron. The talent search is among the most prestigious science competitions in the U.S.
Tyler Bissoondial and Luke Feldman both dedicated hundreds of hours to their projects, while enrolled in Kennedy’s Advanced Science Research program under the leadership of teacher Barbi Frank.
Being named a semifinalist is no easy feat — out of nearly 2,000 applicants, only 300 received the title. They were each awarded $2,000, and a shot at being named a finalist.
The school will also receive $2,000 per student. This is the 19th consecutive year that at least one student in Kennedy’s program has been named a semifinalist.
Students join the ASR program as a sophomore, following an extensive application process. Around two dozen students are accepted into the program each year, although not everyone completes the course. Fifteen seniors finished and submitted projects this year, a simply amazing number, Frank stressed.
“They all completed impressive, graduate-level work,” Frank said. “It takes someone really special to be able to go all the way through the three-year program, and the idea that we have 15 seniors this year, really is an impressive number.”
Bissoondial, 17 of Bellmore, is no stranger to completing research projects.
Bissoondial’s father, Terrence, has a Ph.D. in molecular biology, and is a research teacher at Hewlett High School. From a young age, he had always been interested in science and in putting his skills to the test, participating in several other competitions throughout the years.
Bissoondial explained that he wanted his research for ASR to directly help people — and his project, which studied nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and its development into a type of cancer — did just that.
Working with a mentor at the Angion Biomedica Corporation, he completed his research on mice, which were fed a high-fat diet that induced fatty liver disease. “I did a lot of microscopic analysis, and found that this high-fat diet was able to even induce the cancerous stage, which is known as hepatocellular carcinoma” or HCC, he said. “I found that this cancer stage has little to no approved treatment options, and it’s very difficult to diagnose tumors.”
Further research allowed Bissoondial to discover a type of gene — specifically a type of micro RNA, he said — that has the ability to regulate other genes. He learned this gene can indicate the development of HCC.
“It suggests basically a network of genes that could be responsible for the progression of early stages of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease to HCC,” he further explained.
Bissoondial’s research not only impressed Regeneron’s judges, but it has been published in three scientific journals.
He said when he saw his name on the list of semifinalists, he could hardly comprehend the moment.
“When we scrolled through, my head was still buffering, I didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “It was the most surreal moment, probably in my entire life.”
Feldman, 17 of Merrick, said leading up to high school, he always knew he wanted to participate in ASR. His project focused on something he was interested in but hadn’t explored much: biology.
For many years, Feldman said he visited his grandmother at a nursing home, where a friend of hers was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, ALS, a neurodegenerative disease for which there is no cure. “As I continued to visit,” he said, “I would kind of see how his body was starting to break down. At the time, maybe I didn’t understand what I was seeing, but looking back, it was pretty scary.”
Remembering those moments, Feldman said, gave him the umbrella idea of studying neurodegenerative diseases, and he ultimately settled on ALS, and a chemical, sulforaphane.
“It’s a chemical that’s found in many cruciferous vegetables, like kale, broccoli, broccoli sprouts,” he said, “and this chemical is shown to have some positive effects on the expression of neurodegenerative diseases, but not much research had been done on ALS specifically.”
Completing his research under a mentorship at LIU Post, Feldman cross-bred fruit flies to express a genetic disorder that is similar to the expression of ALS in humans. From there, he put the sulforaphane to the test. Flies with the genetic disorder that were fed sulforaphane-rich foods performed better than flies with the genetic disorder who consumed a normal diet.
Feldman said on the day semifinalists were announced, and the seniors were gathered waiting to read the list, he was flooded with emotions.
“We’re scrolling down, trying to find New York, and then out of the corner of my eye, zooming past, I end up seeing my name,” he said. “At first, it was overwhelming, but the realization that I actually made it this far — I succeeded in getting this far — it was just a rush like no other.”
“It is really an experience you can’t get anywhere else in the entire school,” Feldman said of ASR. “You walk in on the first day, there’s no desks, you have these smooth tables set up in a pattern than promotes closeness and camaraderie. The idea of passing down information and knowledge and wisdom is entirely stressed, and of utmost importance.”
Forty Regeneron finalists were announced at noon on Jan. 24, but Bissoondial and Feldman were not among the winners. Regardless, they’ll have the opportunity to enter their projects into other competitions and can work to have their research published in journals.
“I think ASR taught me a lot about how to be independent,” Bissoondial said. “Even though I have my mentors, my dad, teaching me many different things, I really just developed my own personality, which I think was very important.”