Brooklyn science: Remarkable student research at Poly Prep

February 5, 2013 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Three Poly Prep Country Day School seniors — Alexandra Capellini, Zachary Kaletsch, and Sam Nakagawa — have carried out remarkably sophisticated research projects over the course of the past three years as part of a special Science/Engineering research class at the Dyker Heights school.

Capellini disproved a theory that coleus plants have a “drought memory” that enables them to recover at a stronger rate from a second drought than a first. Kaletsch ran DNA tests on tomato plants to see if he could detect if they had been genetically modified. And Nakagawa tested whether the blade angle on a wind turbine could affect the power output of the turbine.

The students began their research as sophomores. Over the years they designed and developed their projects, wrote formal research papers and submitted them to the Intel Talent Search competition and New York City Science and Engineering Fair (NYCSEF). Now they are awaiting results as they finish up their college application process.

Alexandra Capellini

Interested in plant metabolism and plant response to environmental stress, Capellini described her project. “Coleus plants were separated into three groups, including one group that experienced a single drought and one group that experienced two droughts, as well as one group that was never deprived of water supplies,” she said.

“The plants’ rates of recovery after a first and second drought were similar and no significant difference was observed.” Although more research needs to be done, she concluded, “Pre-conditioning coleus plants will likely produce no advantage for farmers, breeders, or genetic engineers.”
Capellini has an active life outside of her biology studies. As an Xaverian Genesis eighth-grader, she was presented with the first “Hope Award” at the inaugural Francesco Loccisano Memorial Foundation Hopefest 2008. The Brooklyn Eagle’s Tom Kane wrote about Capellini’s experiences as pediatric cancer survivor, and about her travels to the Paralympics. She also plays the clarinet and studies at the Manhattan School of Music.

Zachary Kaletsch

Kaletsch explained why he tests tomato DNA. “The large increase in the consumption of genetically modified (GM) foods has lead to increased governmental concern about its ability to detect and regulate GM foods that are entering the market place.”

“The protocol involves running samples through PCR (polymerase chain reaction) with primers that look to amplify target strands that reveal if the sample was GM. This is then run through gel electrophoresis to observe if DNA was present and extracted, as well as if the sample was GM.”

Kaletsch plays on three Poly sports teams, including track & field, and hopes to study in a pre-med program in college.

Sam Nakagawa

Nakagawa explained the origins of his project on wind turbines. “Today it is estimated that the earth has about 50 years of oil left, before it runs out.” While wind turbines are often thought of as only practical in rural or coastal areas and in the large scale, Nakagawa’s focus was on smaller turbines in urban environments.

“To test key factors of wind turbines, specifically in urban conditions, I built three turbines,” Nakagawa said – two with a mechanical feature that allowed rotation of the angle of the blades while in motion.

He also wrote software to adjust a turbine’s blade pitch to an optimal ratio of pitch to wind speed. “I found that having variable pitch ability did increase the power output of the turbine making it more efficient.”

In his spare time, Nakagawa designs and flies unmanned aerial vehicles. He also plays squash and track & field at Poly, and is a contributor to The Polygon, Poly’s Upper School student newspaper.

The Intel Science Talent Search announces its top-10 winners on March 12; while NYCSEF announces its awards on March 19 or 21.

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