Science students make media splash

“Something big has happened.”

With those words, Shelter Island science teacher Dan Williams made a classroom announcement Sept. 23 to his students about an “impossible dream.”

For the first time, high school students’ work was published in the prestigious Protein Data Bank, the scientific equivalent to the New York Times.

Over the past two years, three Shelter Island students — Emma Gallagher, Lauren Gurney and 2018 graduate Francesca Frasco — collaborated with a team of Long Island high school students from seven districts in the Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) Student Partnerships for Advanced Research and Knowledge (SPARK). Working with teachers like Mr. Williams and Brookhaven scientists Aleida Perez, Alexei Soares and Vivian Stojanoff, the students defied the odds in their accomplishments, Mr. Williams said.

Further research will be able to build on their work to better understand how Methylenetetrahydrofolate Reductase (MTHFR) improves treatments of illnesses ranging from cardiovascular and thromboembolic diseases, acute leukemia and difficulties in bringing pregnancies to term, to chronic pain and fatigue, nerve pain, migraines and a number of other health problems.

When Mr. Williams had told his students at the outset they wouldn’t be able to acquire the materials necessary to do their work, their answer was, “Just watch us,” he said.

They reached out for the necessary proteins and thousands of dollars worth of the material was provided to them.

“I started thinking I had some weird students,” Mr. Williams said.

But he was used to students of great accomplishments, having taught Emily Hyatt, class of 2016 and now a senior at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. In introducing the most recent accomplishments, Mr. Williams credited Ms. Hyatt with laying the groundwork for what Ms. Gallagher, Ms. Gurney and Ms. Frasco have achieved.

The first crystals the students found turned out to be salt. That’s when they learned an important lesson: Science is about one step forward and five steps back, Mr. Williams said.

It’s an important lesson to learn in life, he said, about the necessity of patience and persistence.

“This was a partnership, not me imparting wisdom” to the students, Mr. Williams said.

If the salt crystals were a step back, they didn’t stop the students from pushing forward and getting “beam time” at Brookhaven Laboratory’s Synchrotron Light Source II to finally get the crystals they sought.

BNL’s light source enables scientists to measure electronic, chemical and structural properties of materials even at a nanoscale level that would be impossible for students to do in their classrooms. Such studies in structural biology at this level are generally the realm of graduate students and doctors, but the SPARK program and BNL’s Office of Educational Programs has made it possible for these students to gain recognition for their achievement, Mr. Williams said.

“This is the major leagues,” he added. It wasn’t a student contest but simply “students trying to do good science.”

“This doesn’t happen anywhere at the high school level but it happened here,” Superintendent Brian Doelger said, noting the opportunities Mr. Williams has opened to his students because of his affiliations with BNL and the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.