Centennial pair semifinalists in science search


Two Centennial High School students are semifinalists in this year's Westinghouse Science Talent Search, the country's oldest high school science competition.

As semifinalists, 17-year-old seniors Amita Shukla and James Hsiao are among the country's top 300 high school science students. They were chosen from more than 1,600 entries from about 190 high schools in 43 states.

They will find out today whether they are among 40 finalists eligible for scholarships worth more than $205,000. The contest is sponsored by Westinghouse Electric Corp. and Washington-based Science Service, a nonprofit organization that tries to increase public understanding of science.

Amita was named a semifinalist for her research on one of a variety of Southeast Asian gallnuts that helps cut down on gingivitis -- inflammation of the gums -- and the spread of bacteria that cause periodontal disease.

Her research started when she had a toothache and her mother suggested she use gallnut powder to soothe the pain.

Her family had used it as a home remedy for generations.

"Initially I was skeptical about it," Amita said. "But I tried it, and it did work. And for two years or so, I was working on my own, just tinkering around."

She eventually was paired with a mentor at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry, who taught her the techniques of microbiology and showed her how to conduct research more accurately.

She said the gallnut works as an antibacterial agent that strips a lining inside the mouth and stops bleeding gums.

"It comes as an astringent feeling on the teeth, and it has a sweet aftertaste," she said. "It binds with mucous and saliva. It's a combination of these actions that makes it so effective with periodontal disease."

Amita is an inquisitive and persistent person, said her science research teacher, Ed Rohde.

"She worked extremely hard," he said. "She took something that seemed very simple in historical connotations. They used this gallnut in India when they were brushing their teeth, and they realized it was helping their gums. But they didn't know why. She was very inquisitive."

James Hsiao's project involved identifying clones on file at a library at the National Institutes of Health, as an intermediate step to identifying the gene responsible for Usher's syndrome, the leading cause of deaf-blindness among Americans.

His project was called "Characterization of a Microdissected Library Clone Mapping Near the Usher's Disease Locus and Carrying a Polymorphic Tetranucleotide Repeat."

He conducted his experiment with help from researchers at the Bethesda-based NIH, where he worked during the summer as an intern.

He plans to return this summer as part of the NIH-Howard Hughes Medical Institute Summer Program to continue his research.

"Many diseases have already been mapped to specific chromosomal regions, and the focus of research now is to narrow down the search to the disease gene itself," he says. "What I especially like about my research is that I was taking part in a major turning point in trying to identify the gene responsible for Usher's syndrome."

James also plays violin for the Maryland Youth Symphony Orchestra and is an editor for the school newspaper, Wingspan.

He is headed for Yale University next fall and wants to study

premed and attend medical school to become a doctor or a researcher.

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