WHK Interns Sweep Entire Category at Frederick County Science Fair

students with posters.

Werner H. Kirsten student interns display winning posters. Seated: Madelyne Xiao; standing, from left, Dahlia Kronfli, Maria Hamscher, and Ashley Babyak. Not pictured: Maham Ahmed, Hanna Perez, and Sam Pritt.

By Nancy Parrish, Staff Writer

The competitors in the cellular and molecular biology category of the Frederick County Science and Engineering Fair on March 22–23 didn’t stand a chance against the Werner H. Kirsten student interns at the National Cancer Institute at Frederick.

These interns swept the entire category, with Madelyne Xiao, a rising intern, winning first place; Maria Hamscher, second place; Ashley Babyak and Dahlia Kronfli tying for third place; and Maham Ahmed receiving an honorable mention.

Hamscher, who worked with mentor Krista Frankenberry, Ph.D., in the laboratory of Vinay Pathak, Ph.D., Viral Mutation Section of the HIV Drug Resistance Program, said her research focused on gene therapy vectors that could play a role in treating patients with HIV.

Babyak and Kronfli both worked with Katie Stagliano in the Laboratory of Molecular Immunoregulation, headed by Andy Hurwitz, Ph.D. Kronfli said her project was designed to “perform quality checks on truncation mutants of the FOXO3 protein to verify their identity so that they could be further used in functional studies.” Babyak also worked with FOXO3 proteins, she said, testing “the ability of FOXO3 peptide inhibitors to disrupt the binding of FOXO3 proteins to DNA. These peptide inhibitors are meant to disrupt the function of the FOXO3 transcription factor, which has been implicated in the development of cancer.”

Xiao, a rising high school senior at Urbana High School, works in the Basic Science Program CCR Genetics Core with mentors Bailey Kessing and Randall Johnson. Her project focused on the implications of genetic ancestry in HIV/AIDS susceptibility. “Knowing that certain genetic ancestries predispose individuals to infection with HIV and progression to AIDS, we identified areas of abnormally high African and European ancestry in admixed (mixed race) populations.” she said.

Other first-place winners included interns Hannah Perez, in the microbiology category, and Sam Pritt in the biochemistry category. Pritt also received the overall grand prize and went on to compete at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix, Az., in May (see article on page x).

Perez worked with mentor Vickie Marshall in the Viral Oncology Section, AIDS and Cancer Virus Program, headed by Denise Whitby, Ph.D. Her project focused on viruses that threaten exotic species of nonhuman primates. “Betaherpesviruses can cause severe disease in animals already stressed,” Perez explained, “and gammaherpesviruses are associated with many types of cancer in animals as well as humans” (see “Intern Places First in Microbiology at Frederick County Science Fair” on Insite.)

Pritt, who works in the Cancer and Inflammation Program with Nadya Tarasova, Ph.D., said the focus of his project was to “develop peptide drugs to inhibit the Wnt signaling pathway.” This pathway, he explained, plays a role in the development of a variety of different cancers.                                                  

Gaining Experiences to Take with Them

The reasons the interns appreciate their experiences at NCI at Frederick are as varied as the interns themselves.

Both Xiao and Pritt appreciate the opportunity to work with the scientists as well as with other students focused on science. “I’ve been able to collaborate with incredible thinkers and researchers,” Xiao said. “My mentors and the people in their labs have always been willing to discuss projects and answer questions. Not to mention the like-minded students I’ve met.” She hopes to continue her studies in a science-related field, possibly computer science. 

Pritt, who plans to attend Princeton University, said he appreciates the opportunity “to conduct research and collaborate with other scientists.”

Hamscher is grateful to her mentor for making things “easy to understand” and was surprised at how much she learned while an intern. Frankenberry, she said, taught her “so much more than I ever thought I could learn as a high school student.” Hamscher plans to attend the University of Pittsburgh as a pre-med student, with the ultimate goal of becoming a surgeon.

Kronfli feels better prepared for college courses. “I have learned an incredible amount about biotechnology and research,” she said, and she is “excited to go to college with a basic understanding of molecular biology and knowledge of lab protocols.” This fall she will enter the Integrated Life Sciences Program at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Working in a research lab helped Babyak learn valuable skills and gain “real-life experience…in the world of science,” she said. Babyak will study biotechnology and chemistry at Stevenson University this fall.

Perez will study biology at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and said she hopes to become a doctor of veterinary medicine.

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