Seniors Andrew Eng and Matthew Gambardella and junior Ariana Farahani display their winning “Met” protein model at the Protein Modeling Challenge held at Stony Brook University on March 7.
Friends Academy Upper School students take 1st place in regional biology competition
Win involves in-depth study of cancer cells and cancer-causing proteins
LOCUST VALLEY – A team of three Friends Academy Upper School students beat out 30 teams from other schools to win first place at the Protein Modeling Challenge competition held at Stony Brook University on March 7.
Senior Andrew Eng (Lynbrook), junior Ariana Farahani (Old Westbury) and senior Michael Gambardella (Garden City) represented Friends Academy’s first entry ever into this regional competition. “We were all pretty stunned,” said advisor and Upper School Biology teacher and Science Department head Jennifer Newitt. “It was our first year in the competition against some schools that have been doing this for years or have protein building clubs to prepare for it – and somehow we came in first place!”
Competitors were tested on their knowledge of proteins in general, and specifically the “Met” protein, which is a protein involved in turning cells cancerous. Teams were also evaluated on the quality of their “pre-build” of the protein model completed at school earlier in February and then the actual build at the competition.
To prepare for this competition, the FA team dug into cancer research. “First we had to learn the basics about cancer cells – how they develop, the current drugs available to slow down cancer cell growth, what makes them become cancerous and many other details necessary to understanding the function of our protein,” said Farahani.
“Then we discussed the role our protein had in turning a normal cell into a cancer cell and soon enough, we finally started putting the pieces together to build our model,” she added.
Students used 3D-imaging software to view the “Met” protein on screen before actually constructing a physical model. “The model took a lot of work,” recalled Farahani. “We had to label the amino acid sequence, create our alpha helices and beta pleated sheets and then put all the bends in the right places to match the 3D image of our protein,” she said.
Working as a team, the three students each brought their own strengths, both with the model and overall essay. “We each helped in shaping the structure to match the model we had on the computer and to add any artistic designs to emphasize the important side chains and structures in the model,” said Eng.
Teamwork was a key and crucial factor in winning the top honors. “During the competition, we had to work together and build a new part (we had never seen before) of the same protein in 50 minutes, and then take a long test on proteins in general. This took a lot of teamwork and communication,” said Farahani.
For the students involved, this experience taught them a range of lessons. “I learned a lot more about cancer and how one protein can have such a large impact on our cells,” said Eng. “Not only did I learn a lot about our protein, Met,” said Farahani, “I also learned something really valuable: how if you really put your mind to something, with hard work and a positive attitude, you can achieve it.”