Lab Leaders

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Local students to compete at climate change competition

Young scientists Danielle Kelly and Plainview’s Audrey Shine (Photo by Colleen Martin)

School may be out for the summer, but rising seniors Danielle Kelly and Audrey Shine aren’t taking a vacation. Kelly, of Friends Academy in Glen Cove, and Shine, of Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School, are diligently preparing to present their work on clean energy to a panel of judges at the Spellman High Voltage Electronics Clean Tech Competition at Stony Brook University.

The duo is one of 10 teams set to attend the competition—more than 800 groups and individuals from 39 countries submitted their projects for consideration. The judges narrowed down the entries to the top 30, before coming up with the 10 finalists to appear on July 12.

This is Shine’s second year entering the competition. Last year she was on the team that won the whole thing—the pair isn’t sure if that helps or hurts their odds for a first place title this year. In any case, the team stands a chance to win $10,000 and a chance to present at the World Congress on Climate Change 2018, which will take place in Rome in September.

Their project began when the pair met while researching through the Garcia Program at Stony Brook last summer. Over the course of nine weeks, they worked among 70 to 80 other young, promising science students in the labs. Their research involved “optimizing the production of clean energy using hydrogen fuel cells by coating their membrane with graphene oxide.” They reported that this technique actually increased cell performance by 132 percent.

While they thoroughly enjoyed all of the work and self study that went into this, the experience was certainly challenging—they worked five days per week and sometimes spent more than 12 hours per day in the lab. Still, they said that it was a wonderful opportunity that they look forward to taking advantage of it again this upcoming summer.
“It’s what you make of it,” Kelly said. “If you love your project and you’re willing to put in the work, then you can stay until 11 p.m. and come back after the program ends.”

Shine agreed, pointing out the program’s motto of “Garcia is your home” as a testament to the support and community they’ve found there. She recalled a time where she and Kelly were at program director Dr. Miriam Rafailovich’s home until 1:30 in the morning the night before their paper was due. Shine described Rafailovich editing their paper, while Skyping with one student, talking on the phone to another and typing on her laptop at the same time. The partners agreed that it is her dedication to them and the program that has made this such a wonderful experience.

JFK High School Research Coordinator Mary Lou O’Donnell cited Rafailovich as an “incredible woman,” one that is “unique, bright, and driven and kind.” O’Donnell calls her an unsung hero.

“We call her God,” Shine said, as Kelly nodded enthusiastically beside her.

Rafailovich has been cited as a mentor to budding science stars for years. In order to help her young students become problem-solvers and self-thinkers, she asks them questions to get them thinking about their projects instead of simply telling them the steps they should follow, Shine said. Her intelligence and her dedication certainly haven’t gone unnoticed by her students.

“She’s a woman in science. That is a role model to us,” Kelly said. “She is amazing and she is someone to look up to and aspire to be.”

Looking around the classroom that houses some of the science research department at JFK high school, there’s no shortage of talent to admire. On the wall, dating back to 2003 when the program began, are the names of students and the colleges they decided to attend. Painted all around are names like Duke, UPenn and MIT.

O’Donnell beams as she looks around the room, seeing the success of the program and the students in it. The graduates are very open to receiving papers from current students, in order to get feedback on their projects before they enter competitions, she said. You don’t have to look very far to find these willing alums, as was shown by Andrew Kholodny, a member of the Class of 2018 who was spending his morning in the classroom. He described the feeling of being lost as a ninth-grader.

“You’re a freshman, you’re in high school, you don’t know where you’re going,” he said. “But then you come here.”

The girls agreed. Shine expressed how grateful she is to go to a school that offers such a robust research program. She started up in freshman year, and never second-guessed her decision.

“I just knew this was where I was supposed to be,” she said.

Both students plan to continue into the STEM field, although Shine hopes to combine that passion with business. She said that she feels she can leave her mark the most through science.

“Leave your footprint and reduce the carbon footprint,” joked Kelly, prompting laughter from O’Donnell and Shine. As the scientists posed for a picture in front of their presentation boards, they waved their proud teacher over to join them. O’Donnell shook her head.
“It’s all about them,” she said. “It’s all about them.”

As they stood with their prototype, in front of the diagrams and data tables and chemical equations that they spent months creating, it’s easy to see why they’ve garnered so much respect from their teacher. Now all they have to do is show that to the judges.

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