Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute scientists mentor award-winning high school students

A high school student sits at her desk, in front of a computer.

Kacey Price was mentored by Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute assistant professor Rosalyn Moran.

A Virginia native, mentored by a Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute scientist, recently placed in the International Science and Engineering Fair. The student, Kacey Price, is one of three Roanoke Valley Governor’s School for Science and Technology students mentored by Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute scientists who competed in the Virginia State Science and Engineering Fair. All three students earned accolades for their projects in smaller competitions.

At the state science fair, Price earned the grand prize, qualifying her to move onto the international competition, where she won the fourth place award in the category of computational biology and bioinformatics. Price’s research also won first place in the Mathematical Sciences category, second place in Computational Science, known as the Leidos Award, and it won both a Navy STEM award and the Intel Computer Science award.

Price, with the mentorship of Rosalyn Moran, an assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, helped to develop a computer program that mimics the brain of a person with Alzheimer’s disease. She examined how specific groups of neurons could respond to different medications within her model. Her results actually indicate that the model could be used in early diagnosis of the disease, as well.

Jason Fischell, a student at Franklin County High School, was mentored by Crystal Boudreaux in Sarah McDonald’s laboratory. Fischell researched rotavirus, a pathogen that causes severe diarrhea and is responsible for the deaths of half a million children in communities without access to adequate medical care. Fischell, under the mentorship of Boudreaux, helped elucidate that virus particles could still form after a core shell protein mutated. The new knowledge sheds light on mechanisms of rotavirus assembly and could help lead to more efficacious vaccines.

Howard Huang, a student at Hidden Valley High School, was mentored by Alexei Morozov. Huang studied how eliminating the brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a crucial molecule involved in neural plasticity, would affect emotional behaviors in a rodent model. People with an altered BDNF gene display traits of a wide range of psychiatric disorders, including depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. Antidepressant medications can increase the amount of BDNF in a person’s brains, lessening the feelings of depression and anxiety. However, the mechanisms of how a lack of BDNF can cause these psychiatric disorders are poorly understand. Huang’s project helped to shed some light on those processes.