While many high school students spent the summer working typical seasonal jobs as lifeguards or camp counselors, Byram Hills High School senior Alexandra Brocato spent hers researching Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) at the Rubin Laboratory in Harvard University’s Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology. Ali, as she is referred to at school, studied SMA, a leading genetic cause of infant mortality.
And her time in the lab paid off when she was named a Semi-Finalist in the prestigious National Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology for her extensive multi-year research project last month. She is part of the Dr. Robert Pavlica Authentic Science Research Program at the high school and was one of only eight high school students in Westchester County to be honored in the competition. Ali joined the Byram Hills science research program when she was a sophomore. The program now has 84 students with 31 seniors participating under the directorship of Mrs. Stephanie Greenwald.
SMA is a hereditary condition that causes spinal nerve cells to die. Symptoms may include diminished muscle tone, muscle weakness, respiratory problems, pneumonia, and swallowing and feeding difficulties. Ali’s research focused on identifying significant symptoms of the disease, in order to create a disease trajectory. By understanding the disease’s progression, doctors can introduce drug therapies at an earlier stage to prevent the disease from taking over a child’s body.
Ali, originally was studying another neurogenerative disease, multiple sclerosis (MS) with a mentor at the New York Stem Cell Foundation but when the mentor was unable to offer her a summer position in the lab due to her status as a minor, Ali was undeterred. She contacted more than 50 professors to see if she could pursue research at a university level and eventually was permitted to at the Rubin Lab at Harvard University as the only high school student. The researchers at the lab were studying SMA.
Her first task at the Rubin Lab was learning R, a statistical programming software. She analyzed over 600,000 fields of data to understand the prevalence of SMA’s symptoms and create a timeline of the disease’s trajectory. Much of the research focus on SMA has examined the molecular side of the disease rather than how the disease progresses. Ali’s research will be helpful in the drug development process because it will hopefully allow doctors to intervene earlier before an individual’s symptoms actually worsen.
Next up, Ali will present her research at a stem cell conference and plans on submitting her project to the Regeneron Science Talent Search in mid-November. In terms of career aspirations Ali is considering studying computational biology or bioengineering in college. “I saw firsthand the power of programming and science research and the impact this can have in saving lives. This is what motivates me and excites me more than anything–using technology to combat disease and prolong and improve an individual’s quality of life,” she explained.
A true Renaissance woman, Ali plays competitive club soccer and Varisty soccer and competed in the World Maccabiah Games in Israel, where her team won a Gold Medal. She is also the co-editor-in-chief of The Oracle, the Byram Hills school newspaper.