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Health, Science & Tech

Local Students Compete at World's Largest High School Science Fair

Can you use math to calm traffic and prescribe fish dinners to help patients with multiple sclerosis?

Those are just a couple of the questions being asked by some of the brightest high school students in the world at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles this week.

Approximately 1,700 young scientists and engineers from nearly 70 countries are showcasing their science and engineering projects and vying for more than $4 million in awards and scholarships.

Two of those students are from the Pittsburgh area: Songela Chen, a junior at North Allegheny High School, and Rishi Mirchandani, a junior at Fox Chapel Area Senior High School.

Chen is tackling the fishy question with her work on Omega-3 fatty acids and microglia, which she calls the “janitors” of the central nervous system. The downside of microglia, said Chen, is that they also cause inflammation.

Chen has been studying Omega-3 fatty acids for the last three years, while simultaneously volunteering in a lab at the University of Pittsburgh. She was learning how to culture microglia, while other researchers in the lab looked at the effects of Omega-3 fatty acids on neurons.

“When I saw what other people in the lab were doing with neurons and the Omega-3s, I thought, since I’m … culturing this kind of cell, it would be interesting to see whether the Omega-3s can have the beneficial effect on microglia,” Chen said.

As it turns out, Chen said, the Omega-3s shifted the microglia away from the inflammation function and toward the “janitor” function. Chen said this finding could have major implications for people suffering from multiple sclerosis, who have large amounts of “debris” in their central nervous system for the microglia to clean up.

“With my research, I’m just really looking at one more way to provide an easy accessible therapy for these patients, because Omega-3s are … naturally available in fish, walnuts, and a lot of other sources,” Chen said.

Chen said she looks forward to replicating her research on a larger scale and eventually working with animal and human subjects. She said she wants to be a doctor when she gets older, because she wants to help people live healthier lives.

Rishi Mirchandani said he came up with the idea for his project soon after he got his driver’s license and began commuting to work and, consequently, sitting in traffic.

It occurred to him that city planners and engineers could use mathematics to solve traffic flow problems. Mirchandani said municipalities often focus only on rush hour scenarios.

“My proposal is that we need to run those types of simulations at all the demands that the network would have to accommodate, from rush hour to noontime to 3am,” Mirchandani said. “That sheds light on, in total, how does the network really perform?”

Mirchandani said such an analysis would help governments prioritize maintenance and improvements to yield the highest returns.

“That return comes in terms of increasing people’s productivity because they have shorter commutes,” Mirchandani said. “It also gives returns in less vehicular emissions and less abrasion of our transportation infrastructure.”

Awards will be announced Thursday evening and Friday morning. While Mirchandani and Chen both said they would love to win an award, they said the experience itself has been inspiring, and that they’re grateful to all the people involved in organizing the event.