By Heather Burkhart
The Westchester Science and Engineering Fair (WESEF) is known as the most competitive science fair in New York. The 2015 competition, accommodating over 420 high school students from Westchester and Putnam counties, showcased projects stemming from subjects such as biochemistry, microbiology, environmental science and engineering. Incredible scientific progress was made, but only 21 students received top awards. We got in touch with Stephanie Becker, one of the finalists who was selected to attend the Intel ISEF 2015 competition, based on her work with Neuropeptide-Y, for a Q&A.
First off, could you tell me a little about your work with molecular and cell biology that you presented in the WESEF 2015 competition?
The research project I presented at WESEF this year revolved around a protein-like molecule called Neuropeptide-Y (NPY) and its effects in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a chronic relapsing condition mediated by an abnormal immune response. My study blocked NPY's Y1 and Y2 receptors using small-molecule antagonists in an IBD mouse model in order to determine if this attenuated IBD pathology and these pathological changes were associated with behavioral and biochemical changes.
I revealed that blocking the Y1 receptor led to increased IBD pathology, while blocking the Y2 receptor led to decreased IBD pathology, and that these pathological changes were associated with biochemical changes. Combined, these results identified NPY Y2 receptor antagonism as a novel therapeutic strategy for the treatment of IBD at a pathological and biochemical level.
How long have you been interested in science, and what made you decide to pursue Neuropeptide-Y’s effects in IBD as a project?
I have been intellectually curious since I was little, chatting with the people around me about current events and new innovations. Reoccurring chats with my flute teacher, Mrs. Yoshimi Arai, stimulated my interest in the relationship between the body and mind. Yoshimi isn't a scientist; however, many of our conversations touch upon science; we often talk about how our state of mind can affect our overall health.
Literature review revealed that my fascinating chats with Yoshimi revolved around psychoneuroimmunology, the study of the relationship between psychology, neurology, and immunology. The science-research program at my high school provided me with the opportunity to apply my curiosity and interest gained from my discussions with others. Once I became particularly interested in the relationship between neurology and immunology, I contacted scientists from various laboratories focusing on neuroimmunology, including the Neurology Lab at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals. There, I developed my project, focusing on neuroimmune communication between the nervous system and the gut.
Is there anyone who inspired you to pursue neuroimmunology as a career?
To say that only one person inspired me to pursue this project would be an understatement. The people whom I particularly want to highlight are Mrs. Arai, who initially sparked my interest in the field of neuroimmunology, my best friend, Juliet Ivanov, who was and is always there for me to have conversations about science, and my mother, whose diagnosis of Myasthenia gravis, like inflammatory bowel disease, an autoimmune disease, motivates me to pursue research in treating autoimmune disease.
I also want to highlight my mentor, Dr. Susan Croll, and Dr. Henry Ruiz from Regeneron Pharmaceuticals. Dr. Ruiz introduced me to his ongoing project about Neuropeptide-Y and inflammatory bowel disease, teaching me basic lab techniques, while Dr. Croll met with me every week for two years to discuss my research and provide deep insight I could not have done without.
Is there any research you would be interested in continuing with? How are you planning to further your studies at the university level, and what are your goals afterward?
I definitely want to continue exploring the field of neuroimmunology by conducting research on cellular interactions throughout the body. I hope that by understanding how the nervous system and immune system function normally, novel medicines can be created for different diseases and disorders. If my work is ever translated into medicine, I hope the medicament(s) reflect this approach by treating complex diseases with carefully constructed drugs targeting cellular and brain/body interactions. I believe that knowing more about the interactions will provide patients with effective treatment with fewer side effects.
I have actually pitched some research ideas to Dr. Croll that I hope to take up in the future. I am currently studying neurobiology and behavior at Cornell University. After Cornell, I’d like to receive a PhD, while concurrently conducting research. Ultimately, I aim to work at a research institution as a neurobiologist or a cellular biologist and discover knowledge that will be vital to understanding the relationship between the brain and body and to developing novel drugs.
Congratulations, Stephanie, and thanks for showing the world what a girl can do!
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