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Dr. April Burch, Director of Advanced Math/Science Research

Annie Hauser '20, Cece Block '20, and Aimi Sekiguchi '20 with Advanced Math/Science 
Research Director Dr. April Burch

Since joining the faculty at Berkshire eight years ago, I have made a conscious effort to inspire young women to join the Advanced Math/Science Research program. Little by little and year by year, I have seen the numbers of female researchers steadily increase in the AMSR program, and this year I am proud to say that they actually outnumber their male counterparts. 

To add to the excitement around women in science at Berkshire, 50 years after the first female students were welcomed to campus, today three young women submitted their yearlong AMSR research projects for consideration to the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science competition for high school seniors, the Regeneron Science Talent Search (STS). Berkshire has 11 semifinalists in the past 10 years, yet only two of those scholars have been female. As the school celebrates its 50th anniversary of coeducation, I am excited to see an increased commitment to the STEM fields by all of our students in AMSR, especially this group of young and talented women. While the three women share a love of science, they and their projects could not be more different. They have all made the most of their time at Berkshire and in the AMSR program. Regeneron STS Scholars (semifinalists) will be announced on Jan. 8th, 2020. The 40 finalists will be announced on January 22, 2020.

Regeneron STS 2020 Projects

Cece Block ’20, Connecticut
Project: “Silica Aerogels: Fabrication and Microwave Interference” 

Abstract: Aerogel could modernize the field of Material Science. Aerogels are gels whose co-solvent has been replaced by gas, without compromising or shrinking the structure of the gel, resulting in a highly porous composition and making aerogels the lightest known solid. This report focuses on the fabrication process of silica aerogel, the most efficient drying method, and challenges in the potential applications of the material. The data included herein will show that critical point drying is the most efficient drying method for small aerogels. The next step would be to industrialize the fabrication process to allow for bigger monoliths and easier manufacturing. To investigate further applications of silica aerogel, the material’s interference with microwaves was examined, discovering that silica aerogel decreases microwaves radiation in an experimental system. Taken together, this project extends the knowledge of fabrication and the utility of aerogels to include defense against microwave radiation.

Mentor: Dr. April Burch, Berkshire School; Assisted by Dr. Christopher Alpha and Sam Wright, Cornell Center for Nanoscale Science, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

Annie Hauser ’20, New York 
Project: “Cell-Based Assay to Explore the Transport of NRXN1 With the Addition of Lumacaftor”

Abstract: Autism is a complicated disorder in which there are both environmental and genetic influences. Many genetic mutations are involved in the disorder, one protein change commonly found is in neurexin-1 (NRXN1) is L748I. To study this protein, I developed a mutant plasmid with the mutation most commonly found in patients with Autism. I studied the localization of wild-type and mutant NRXN1 in this system and was visually able to see a difference. Ideally, this system would be used to test lumacaftor if given more time. Lumacaftor is a chaperone-like drug used in patients with cystic fibrosis, my driving question is to see if lumacaftor could be used in this system to correct the mutation. 

Mentor: Dr. April Burch, Berkshire School

Aimi Sekiguchi '20, Japan
Project: “Mutant variants of Unc93B1 gene confers recognition of CpG-A by Toll-like receptor 9” 

Abstract:  The innate immune system protects the body by recognizing pathogens and initiating immune responses. Toll-like-receptor 9 (TLR9) is a pathogen receptor localized in the endolysosome, and it recognizes single-stranded DNA (ssDNA). Studies have shown that TLR9 requires various molecules such as cathepsins and DNase2a to successfully activate, but the exact mechanism underlying TLR9 recognition of its ligands is yet unknown. Here I show that the Unc93B1 gene from plasmacytoid dendritic cells (pDCs) confer Ba/F3 cell responses to CpG-A, a ssDNA TLR9 ligand. Functional cloning of the cDNA library of pDCs, a CpG-A responsive cell line, identified that different mutations and a splicing variant appear in the Unc93B1 gene of pDCs. Although further work is necessary to identify the independent functions of each mutant and variant, the comparative results of TLR9 activation in Ba/F3 cells with WT Unc93B1 expression and mutant Unc93B1 splicing variant expression suggest unknown roles of the Unc93B1 gene in DNA recognition by TLR9. 

Mentor: Dr. Kensuke Miyake, Division of Innate Immunity, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, The Institute of Medical Science, The University of Tokyo