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Jan 18, 2011 4:00 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Sag Harbor Student Is Intel Semi-Finalist

Jan 18, 2011 4:00 PM

It began with a sponge.

The mysterious organism was proliferating through tanks at Atlantis Marine World in Riverhead last spring, and it seemed unstoppable. Nothing would grow on it or, in some cases, even around it. Nothing in the aquarium would eat it or could halt its growth.

In this robust manner, the sponge made its way into the life of Alexa Lantiere, a senior at Pierson High School, and changed it forever. After gaining insights into the chemistry of the organism, the 17-year-old became one of 300 semifinalists in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search. One of her mentors, Robert Schumacher, a chemistry teacher at Pierson High School, informed her of the honor in a phone call last Wednesday morning.

“I just woke up, and I was excited,” said Alexa, who lives in Sag Harbor. “I was surprised.”

Throughout the fall, working during her free periods and sometimes after school, Alexa used a series of chemical processes—flash chromatography, filtration, titration and recrystallization—to separate out the chemicals contained in the sponge, which is known as collospongia. Before she could do any of that, she and her mentors had to dry out the dark brown organism and soak it in methanol for 24 hours to extract all its organic compounds.

One of the compounds proved to be the center of her research, and was dubbed Compound 1. Alexa mapped out the atoms in Compound 1 and discovered two of them had been misplaced in a 1982 research report that was published in the Australian Journal of Chemistry. She corrected an error made by career scientists.

“It’s a pretty big deal to find that, I guess,” Alexa said, modestly, sitting at a table in the second-story lab where she conducted most of her research. Arrayed in a box nearby were the fruits of her work: Tiny capsules containing faint traces of the compounds she extracted, mostly in the form of tiny white crystals sticking to the edges of the glass.

Using the same methods that a research scientist might use to seek new medicines in nature, Alexa also found that Compound 1 was active against two types of bacteria, E. coli and B. subtillis, and a type of fungus, S. cerevisiae.

Dr. Schumacher, who mentored Alexa alongside his brother, Richard Schumacher, who is also a chemistry teacher at Pierson High School, said the work qualifies as publishable science. “She had to do a lot of organic chemistry that she wouldn’t do at the college level—that she would do at the graduate level,” he said.

Furthermore, Alexa had to do it all within the confines of a high school science lab—a feat that required considerable ingenuity. “Some of the techniques we did are techniques you would never do in a lab, but we had to do them,” said Dr. Schumacher, who has mentored six semifinalists during the eight years he has taught at the high school.

When Alexa became a semifinalist, she won $1,000 for herself and $1,000 for her school. On January 26, she said, she will find out whether or not she is one of 40 finalists who go to Washington, D.C., to present their research.

Among her other insights: the compound showed anti-fouling activity, which might explain why nothing grew on it, and displayed a potential to be used in an organic anti-fouling bottom paint for boats, according to Dr. Schumacher. The sponge also likely has a bitter taste, which might explain why fish wouldn’t eat it, he said.

On top of her research, Alexa was a star player on the high school field hockey team, which won its way through the state playoffs to earn a silver medal this fall, losing a heartbreaker in the championship game. “They kept winning and we kept panicking,” Dr. Schumacher said with a laugh.

Alexa will attend Johns Hopkins University in Maryland next fall, and is considering majoring in public health studies and going on to medical school. Meanwhile, she is working with researchers at the University of Mississippi to find more compounds contained in the sponge. “By the time we get to all we get to know,” Dr. Schumacher said, “she’ll probably be in her second year of college.”

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Congratulations to Alexa and my highest praises to Dr. Schumacher who is one of the most dedicated, talented and kindest teachers. With his guidance, Sag Harbor has had an Inel semi-finalist many years in a row. Good luck, Alexa!
By Mrs.Sea (268), Sag Harbor on Jan 20, 11 10:20 AM
You Go Girl!!!! Good luck and COngratulations!!!
By honeylamb (71), East Quogue on Jan 24, 11 12:24 PM
Excellent work Alexa! I think it is especially wonderful that this work was accomplished in a high school science laboratory. We are lucky here on Long Island to have so many high-tech research facilities available but this is not the case in many other parts of the country. This just goes to show that anyone. anywhere is capable of professional-grade research such as this young lady's. You set a fine example for the rest of us Ms. Lantiere, and we expect great things from you in the future!
By Cdwyer213 (68), Quogue on Jan 24, 11 1:13 PM
Very cool! Good luck at Johns Hopkins!
By dagdavid (646), southampton on Jan 24, 11 2:19 PM
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