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Island Profile: Francesca Frasco, Island scientist who never stops running

When Shelter Island High School senior Francesca Frasco and I sat down to talk at her family’s home on Wade Road, it was Friday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend. She had just returned from a tea party. A real one with brewed tea in china cups, sweet snacks and conversation.

High school seniors typically attend awards banquets, proms and after-parties, but this is Shelter Island, where years ago Marilynn Pysher began to invite all the young women from the previous year’s high school graduating class to have tea with the young women on the verge of graduating.

It was an event so eagerly anticipated that Jacki Dunning, the school district’s clerk and irreplaceable person, stepped in two years ago when Marilynn was ready to hang up the tea towel.

“Mrs. Dunning is famous for two things. One, her kindness, and two, her cupcakes.” Francesca said. “She went into the corner and we talked about whatever we wanted to.”

Francesca grew up in Mastic Beach with her sisters Melissa and Nicolette, twins born one minute apart, and only 18 months before Francesca.

Her mother Jasmine, who worked at the Center Moriches School and her father Frank, who commuted to the New York Stock Exchange, had their hands full, to say the least.

The girls attended a Catholic school in Center Moriches, and in 2006 when Francesca was about five, the family found a small ranch house on Shelter Island and started spending weekends here.

They became close with their Island neighbors, the Dunnings and the Hallmans. In the company of Elizabeth Dunning and Breanna and Madison Hallman, the three Frasco girls rode their bikes up and down Wade Road endlessly.

Frank Frasco had been telling his family for years that they would someday live on the Island full time, and in 2011 he began renovating the little ranch house that became a new home on the old foundation. At the start of the 2012 school year, Francesca entered 7th grade on Shelter Island.

Although she liked her neighborhood in Mastic Beach, living full-time on Shelter Island was a welcome difference. “We could go outside and do whatever we wanted. We had freedom,” Francesca said. “Where I used to live, my school friends were 30 minutes away and we talked by computer. It’s more of a community here.”

She started running in the 5th grade. At first she just enjoyed running around outside, but after she moved to the Island, friends Joshua Green and Lindsey Gallagher convinced her to join the newly-formed running club. Francesca was in 9th grade when an official cross country team started and by then she knew she wanted to stick with it.

A bout of tendinitis, complicated by trying to get back into running too soon, led to a setback for Francesca in the 10th grade. “I got better, jumped back in and clearly did not learn,” she said, “I ended up not running for six months.”

In her junior and senior years, Francesca was back in good form and the team’s results tell a story of excellence. Both the boys and girls teams were cross country, county and league champions and both teams made it to the state competition. This year was the highest the boys and girls have ever placed as a team.

Francesca’s ability to visualize success, to see the goal she is working toward, is part of what put her in the first group of biology teacher Dan Williams’ students to get publishable results while working under his guidance in the Intel research class.

She began working with Mr. Williams in her junior year to determine the structure of Methylenetetrahydrofolate Reductase, known as MTHFR, a human protein associated with nutrition problems. Mr. Williams suggested they try to get to the bottom of the real structure of the protein, something scientists had previously guessed at.

Francesca loved the challenge. “Mr. Williams had never had one of his students take a project and go from concept to reality,” she said. “In my head I said, ‘Watch me, I will be your first.’”

She spent most of a year researching the problem, trying to build a solid base of concepts to work from. In her senior year, Lauren Gurney and Emma Gallagher began to work with her. Mr. Williams suggested they use a technique called protein crystallography to determine the structure of MTHFR. But first, they needed a sample of the protein to work with.

A flurry of email inquiries led the students to Dr. Elizabeth Trimmer of Grinnell College in Iowa, who is also studying MTHFR and agreed to share her supply with the Shelter Island scientists. Success started to look possible. “I said, we’re going to do this and we’re going to do it before I graduate,” Francesca recalled. “I don’t like to give up. I like to push, I like to accomplish things.”

Francesca, Lauren and Emma spent long days at Brookhaven National Lab, returning four or five times as they worked to grow crystals of MTHFR that could be analyzed.

Despite some setbacks, Francesca awoke one morning to an exciting text message from Mr. Williams, who had stayed even later than his students at Brookhaven, and had made a positive identification, “Congratulations! Folic acid! 2.6 angstrom.”

Their structure will likely be published later this month in the Protein Data Bank that is open to all and used by scientists and researchers.

This fall, Francesca plans to attend SUNY Cortland where she’ll run winter track, spring track and cross country. She’s not sure about a major, but her experience with science in high school is something she’d like to build on and combine with her love of running, possibly in exercise science.

President of her class for three years now, Francesca is an enthusiastic event planner.

Last year’s prom at the Pridwin is the result of her inclusive style of leadership, as is this year’s senior trip to Orlando that includes stops at Universal Studios, The Kennedy Space Center, Cocoa Beach and an aquatic park.

She gets joy doing community service and has participated in three mission trips accompanying Bryan and Kerri Knipfing, one to Boston, one to Shirley, Long Island and last year to Greenport. She worked as a camp counselor with kids, restored property damaged by a storm and last year cleared space in one person’s yard to accommodate a ramp for handicapped access.

In six years of living full-time on the Island, Francesca hasn’t seen it change much, although she said, “I’ve changed. Now I’m 17 and more involved. I know who’s on Town Council. I know the people at the Reporter.”

For her last weeks as a full-time Islander, Francesca is behind the counter at the Tuck Shop, where the Frasco sisters have scooped the mint chip and the rocky road for years, side-by-side.

Lightning Round — Francesca Frasco

What do you always have with you? I have a safety pin with pearls pinned to my running shoes, reminding me that I have to sacrifice things for running.

Favorite place not on Shelter Island? A tiny town called Omisalj. My grandma grew up there, the Shelter Island of Croatia.

When was the last time you were elated?  When I found out we had crystals for the MTHFR protein.

What exasperates you? When people judge each other and they say it out loud.

What is the best day of the year on Shelter Island? The day of the 10K. It’s my favorite holiday.

Favorite movie? I love ‘Jersey Boys.’  I’ve seen it six times.

Favorite food? All vegetables except radishes, which taste like spicy dirt.

Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family?  My coaches Bryan Gallagher and Toby Green — in life and in running.