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A budding scientist blossoms on Shelter Island

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Senior Emily Hyatt will attend Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a prestigious school of science and engineering

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Senior Emily Hyatt will attend Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a prestigious school of science and engineering.

Given a choice, most teenagers would avoid changing high schools. Emily Hyatt has no regrets for making the change.

She will graduate from the Shelter Island High School this Saturday, a gifted student, budding scientific researcher and student leader, all qualities she possessed before she moved to the Island three years ago but which hadn’t blossomed into accomplishments.

From kindergarten through 9th grade she attended school in Southold, and to hear her tell it, moving to the Island to finish high school was a positive turning point in her young life.

“I changed here,” she said. “There, I was socially awkward, but now I’m president of the National Honor Society and a student leader of HUGS [a leadership development and drug and alcohol prevention group]. I never would have done those things in Southold. I would not have put myself out there.”

Emily grew up in Southold with her mother and father, Lynn and Fred Hyatt. Her father, the owner of Peconic Plant Care, works on Shelter Island, so even before she started going to school here, Emily knew the Island, and had friends and childhood memories, including the annual “Snapper Derby.”

“I always liked science from the very beginning of school,” she said, crediting Ms. Berezny, one of her elementary school teachers, with firing her early fascination with the physical and natural world.

But when she took introductory biology in 7th grade, her attitude changed. A substitute took over for the regular teacher, the class was chaotic, and Emily did poorly. In spite of this setback, her interest in science remained strong and she got involved in an after-school robotics activity.

After her parents divorced and her father remarried, she moved, just prior to 10th grade, to the Island with her father and his new wife, Kathleen Lynch.

At the Shelter Island School she joined the Intel science program, where she met Dan Williams, Shelter Island’s respected science teacher, and one of the most popular teachers at the school. Emily said, “He treated us like adults.”

The first year of the three-year Intel program is a seminar, followed by two years where students do their own research. Emily wanted to model a protein, but had to decide which one, since there are countless proteins in humans and other animals. Finally, she picked one that she knew a little bit about because it is a human protein present in cells, ribosome recycling factor (RRF.)

The goal of Emily’s research is to better understand the structure of the RRF. To do this she needed to create a 3-D model of the protein to analyze, and the first step was to grow a crystal she could use to create the model, which she did in April of this year.

Through Mr. Williams’ connection to Brookhaven National Laboratory, a molecular biologist there, Dr. Alexei Soares, agreed to analyze the crystals that Emily grew, using a sophisticated piece of equipment called a beamline to model the structure of RRF using a computer. Using the model, it may be possible to understand ways of turning on or off processes of the protein, processes that may affect bacterial disease.

Emily’s involvement in this type of sophisticated research is so extraordinary that Mr. Williams, who teaches a crystallography class over the summer to high school teachers at Brookhaven, may use Emily’s data as an example to help other science teachers understand the process of crystallization and structure solving.

Balancing out Emily’s drive to conduct scientific research is her participation in volleyball, softball and cheerleading, and her time as a student leader of HUGS.

Emily is president of the National Honor Society (NHS), an organization that recognizes academic achievement as well as service. One of NHS’s activities is the “Cardboard Campout” an annual event to raise awareness of homelessness by attempting to recreate some of the conditions that homeless people endure. Emily and the other members of the NHS spent the night in cardboard boxes on the front lawn of the school.

For Emily, the experience got a little too real.

She fell asleep quickly in her box, but then woke in the middle of the night hearing disturbing noises that sounded like frightened voices and banging doors. Assuming everyone else was asleep, she was too terrified to move and cowered in the box for many long minutes until the voices came nearer and she realized the rest of the group had gone on a noisy midnight walk around the school and were not sleeping in nearby boxes.

One of Emily’s teachers suggested she consider applying to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) a school known for the quality of its technological research and science programs. She followed that advice and will now attend RPI in the fall, with plans to major in biochemistry and to go on to get a Ph.D.

“I hope to be doing research in college,” she said. “I want to be a lab scientist, not a doctor.”

A true sign of her vocation is when Emily applies scientific methods to everyday life, including cooking. “I made some chia pudding and it did not come out well,” she said. “I did think maybe next time I’ll use less cocoa powder.”

Looking back at the effect of the move three years ago from Southold to Shelter Island, Emily said, “At the Shelter Island School I have a feeling of being in a community, and of more connection. Before, I never said anything. I’m much louder now.”