Breck students recognized for innovative research projects

From left, Archana Murali, Samuel Rex and Maya Czeneszew, are semifinalists of Siemens Competition, a national science research competition for high school students. (Submitted photo)
From left, Archana Murali, Samuel Rex and Maya Czeneszew, are semifinalists of Siemens Competition, a national science research competition for high school students. (Submitted photo)

Archana Murali, Samuel Rex and Maya Czeneszew, three Breck School students, have been named semifinalists in the Siemens Competition, a national science research competition for high school students.
The project was conducted through Breck’s Advanced Science Research program.
Each year, students participating in the program study and apply a scientific method of their choosing, investigate existing research on the topic, contact professionals in that field and establish a mentorship, design and conduct a rigorous scientific study, draft a research paper, submit both the research paper and project in the regional science fair and communicate their research findings to their peers and research community.
The students work full-time May through August on their research project, a requirement for the course.
The students submitted a research paper in September and semifinalists were named in October.
Approximately 1,600 projects were submitted. From there, 498 were selected as semifinalists.
Murali, 17, of Golden Valley, worked on developing tools to monitor Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease progression in patients.
She developed software that can detect biomarkers in the retina that can be analyzed to diagnose, predict and monitor the progression of the diseases. Additionally, she coded software that can remotely run these tests on eye scans in minutes.
“This program could be used to understand when Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease develops in patients and hopefully, how this development can be slowed, stopped or prevented,” she said.
Murali’s interest in these two diseases stemmed from a personal place.
“The suffering of my family members and family friends with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease called me to do something about these terrible diseases,” she said.
When she was seeking a research site, she came across an article titled “Your eyes could be the windows to your health” found in the American Academy of Ophthalmology journal, while she was waiting for an ophthalmology appointment.
“This serendipitous find triggered the idea to look into doing Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s research at a retinal clinic,” she said.
This is Murali’s second year working on this research project. In the first year, she and her partner Elena Berman analyzed retinal scans of only Alzheimer’s patients and presented the preliminary portion of the project.
Together, they were named semifinalists in the competition.
Murali alone expanded the research this year to include many more analyzed retinal scans including those of both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patients.
“Overall, I have spent more than 1,000 hours working at different retinal clinics across Minnesota, collecting and analyzing data for this project,” she said.
Murali’s advisor, Robert Mittra, an ophthalmologist and the chair of research at Minnesota VitreoRetinal Surgery, allowed her to data-mine electronic medical records patient data from the VitreoRetinal Surgery patient database.
Murali was pleased to learn she was named as a semifinalist in the Siemens Competition.
“Many of the projects submitted to the competition were very impressive, and I am glad that I was selected amongst this elite group,” she said. “I am thankful to the mentors and teachers who have helped me to get here.”
After graduation, Murali wants to attend college, pursue her master’s degree or doctorate and continue with her interests in science and research.
Rex, 18, of Wayzata, and Czeneszew, 15, of Minneapolis, partnered to engineer a vascularization-inducing hydrogel that can be used to create capillary networks for use in 3D organ bioprinting.
Czeneszew, a biology enthusiast, and Rex, who had worked on a similar project last year, knew combining their passion for this field would strengthen their project.
Rex and Czeneszew compiled their responses to several Sun Post questions via e-mail.
There are an increasing number of patients in need of organ transplants, 120,000 in the U.S. alone, they said, but a limited number of donors.
Organ engineering is a field working to solve this issue by creating transplantable organs, which are also less likely to be rejected by the patient.
According to the students, this field has come a long way and is now able to create thin organs such as skin.
“However, there is not yet a way to incorporate veins into engineered tissue,” they said. “Unfortunately, in vital organs, which tend to be thicker, nutrients cannot reach cells in the middle of the organ without veins to deliver them.
“For this reason, it is not yet possible to create vital organs for transplant. Our project aims to make it possible to engineer these organs. We found a new material that more effectively forms veins in tissue. This material can be used to create thicker organs,” the teens explained.
The duo spent 350 hours each in the laboratory alone. Additional time was needed for background research, writing and other study.
Together they faced some obstacles along the way.
“Because our purpose in this project was to solve a very real problem, there were experiments that had not been done before that we had to design ourselves,” they said.
Their advisor, Angela Panoskaltsis-Mortari, from the University of Minnesota Masonic Cancer Research Center, helped identify ways to quantify the data and find preliminary information on their field of interest.
Rex and Czeneszew said it felt good to see that their hard work paid off.
“It means that we have shown to ourselves and others that these ideas have merit,” they said. “We have accomplished something for which we can be exceptionally proud, while gaining skills that we will use in college, graduate school and beyond.”
Both students will pursue college. Czeneszew plans to major in a biological field and aspires to work in medicine. Rex will major in a field with scientific influences and plans to be a researcher for his profession.
Princesa Hansen, the advisor for the Breck program, is proud of her students.
She, too, was a science fair participant and finalist throughout school.
“Students who have successfully completed a project have proven themselves ready for many of the rigors of college and the professional world beyond,” she said. “To colleges and prospective employers, they have demonstrated skills of organization and self-motivation extending well beyond traditional class requirements.”
According to Hansen, receiving awards is viewed as “icing on the cake.”
“It is exciting, rewarding, special and appreciated,” she said. “The students are proud of their classmates who receive recognition, but it’s not the reason for their research. It’s their passion for their field of study that sustains them as they spend hundreds of hours conducting their project. It’s their love for what they are doing that keeps them going during long days gathering and analyzing data. When they face inevitable barriers, challenges and setbacks, it’s their commitment to their field of study that gives them the tenacity to problem-solve and continue their work.”
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Contact Gina Purcell at [email protected]