In order to study the impact of ultraviolet radiation on the immune system, one high school student from Rockville Centre is getting her hands dirty — literally.
Evalina Lentini is one of two Sacred Heart Academy students who received $300 Mini-Research Grants from the New York Institute of Technology to help fund her investigation of the impact of UV radiation on earthworms.
“This experiment was entirely Evelina’s,” Stephen Sullivan, her course instructor, said. “Sometimes the projects are a combination of my ideas or are built off of something, but this one was really hers. She may have bounced some ideas off me, but it was a very independent project.”
The research grants help cover the cost of materials and related expenses of high school projects in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM-related disciplines.
Sacred Heart, in Hempstead, has secured two of the grants each of the four years it has taken part in NYIT’s competitive program. To date, the university has helped provide a total of $2,200 for student research.
Sullivan said that Lentini, a 17-year-old junior who is in her third year of the AP Capstone research program, is a remarkably independent and mature student who works well with her younger peers, offering constructive criticism and suggestions to make their work better.
She has spent years focusing on ballet, but when the chance to take part in an internship with the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center presented itself last summer, Lentini turned down a chance to perform with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre to pursue her career goals.
“I really enjoy doing cancer research,” she said. “That’s something I would be interested in doing as a profession.”
Her research on prostate cancer at Sloan Kettering, Lentini said, piqued her interest in genetics and the immune system, which ultimately led her to come up with the premise for the earthworm experiment.
Why use earthworms? Sullivan explained that experimenting on small invertebrates is often the best method for students to conduct research in an ethical way that can produce meaningful results that are translatable to larger animals or humans.
“It was the most easily attainable experiment for me to do,” Lentini said. “It is so hard to test it on human models.” It was more practical to compare the immune system of worms with that of humans.
“We already know how UV radiation has carcinogenic qualities and cancer-causing materials,” she said, “but I wanted to test how it would impact the overall functioning of the immune system.”
Lentini worked in the Sacred Heart research laboratory every morning before school for two weeks, using worm food, mud and heat lamps. “I divided the approximately 70 worms I had into groups and subjected them to various UV light exposure levels,” she explained.
For the second phase of the project, she immersed the worms in boiling water to make a solution in order to study their coelomic fluid — part of the earthworms’ digestive system that transports proteins, nutrients and waste.
“So far my qualitative results have proven to be useful and have aligned with my hypothesis,” Lentini said.
She said that based on her observations thus far, incremental exposure to UV radiation has had a detrimental effect on the earthworms, some of which have shown a decreased production of fluid, while others were found to have died more quickly as a result.
“Like any scientific experiment, my study required trial and error before I discovered techniques that would produce data I could examine,” Lentini wrote in an email. “This was a crucial component of my learning experience.”
In keeping with the ethical standards of her work, she said, she focused on preventing the needless suffering of her invertebrate subjects. At the end of the experiment, the worms that did not perish in the trials were set free in the yard outside Sacred Heart.
“I had a lot of fun performing my experiment,” Lentini wrote, “and it was an enriching journey for which I am quite thankful to have received funding from NYIT.”
While she has yet to decide on where she will attend college in two years, she said that, based on her experience as an intern and her research at Sacred Heart, she hopes to go to medical school and become a doctor.
“I don’t know whether or not she will go on to be an oncologist, working with cancer patients,” Sullivan said, adding of her potential career options, “That’s the beautiful thing about being so dedicated, smart and passionate.”