Summit freshmen present science research at national biology conference

Summit students stand in front of a poster

Summit Country Day School freshmen Siena Cutforth, Ellie Moran, Jimmy Fraley, Thomas Lamarre and Luis Valencia present their science research poster at the Experimental Biology annual meeting in Orlando. Thomas is holding a model of aquaporin-4, the molecule they studied.

Five freshmen from The Summit Country Day School presented their molecular biology research project at the Experimental Biology/American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., April 6-9. 

The students, members of a Modeling A Protein Story (MAPS) team, researched the role a water channel protein known as Aquaporin 4 has in a rare autoimmune disease called neuromyelitis optica (NMO). 

Siena Cutforth, New Richmond; Jimmy Fraley, Covington; Thomas Lamarre, Mt. Lookout; Ellie Moran, Mason; and Luis Valencia, Hyde Park, attended the conference with MAPS team faculty moderators Jessica Replogle Ph.D., head of the Science Research Institute, and Karen Suder, Upper School biology teacher. Freshman Irene Calderon contributed to the research project. 

They were among only 20 high school MAPS teams who were invited to present a poster at the conference after submitting abstracts on their research. They presented science research posters and a three-dimensional model of aquaporin-4 at the conference side-by-side with college undergraduate students. Altogether, more than 500 scientific posters were on display. This Experimental Biology abstract will be published online in The FASEB Journal Volume 33, Supplement 1. 

“Our students stood with their poster for an hour and a half as a non-stop stream of people came by to ask them questions,” said Dr. Replogle. “Even though this is our first year in the MAPS team program and our students are only freshmen, their abstract made the cut for selection to present and they completed their research. The conference leadership team told me they were very impressed with the poise and confidence the Summit students exhibited.”  

Siena said the experience was exhilarating. “It was a little overwhelming but it kept me on my toes and was less stressful than I thought because each teammate specializes in certain areas. I didn’t have to answer every question. It was kind of fun to experience the adrenaline rush.” 

The Experimental Biology conference is the annual meeting of five scientific societies and brings together more than 12,000 scientists​. The Summit students not only learned about graduate level research but were exposed to the ideas of world leaders in biochemistry. This year, students attended the opening lecture by Dr. Brian J. Druker, director of the Knight Cancer Institute at Oregon Health & Science University Knight Cancer Institute. Dr. Druker’s research led to the development of the first drug to target the molecular defect of a cancer while leaving healthy cells unharmed. 

“I was incredibly inspired by Dr. Druker's lecture and perseverance,” Thomas said. “The idea that breakthroughs take time really resonated with me. I think this applies not only to science, but many aspects of life.” 

Siena agreed.  

“The big take away for me was how important scientific research is to solving really big problems and how long it takes to find answers – small ones that lead to bigger ones,” Siena said. “I was also amazed at how dedicated the science community is to solving these problems that take years and years to solve. Most people only hear the big result or breakthrough from a research effort but never realize the tons of work and time it takes to conduct research to solve world issues or even tiny answers that lead to a bigger answer. It makes me grateful for all of the curious and dedicated scientists who are working to maybe someday solve a problem that impacts me or my family directly. “ 

The Summit’s MAPS team has been meeting every Wednesday morning before school since October. Aquaporin-4 is one of 13 human forms of aquaporin, a membrane protein responsible for transporting water into cells. The students investigated how the structure of the external loops of aquaporin-4 form the antibody binding site in NMO. Studies on the structure and positioning of the external loops prompted the students to investigate how therapeutics could be designed to disrupt the antibody binding site and prevent relapses in NMO patients. Ultimately, they called their abstract and research poster “Point mutation of aquaporin-4 impairs its binding in neuromyelitis optica.” 

The Milwaukee School of Engineering Center for BioMolecular Modeling provides resources for the high school MAPS teams who work to understand a molecular story. Teams design a model to help them visualize the structural aspect of the protein that is the focus of their research project, and the university prints a three-dimensional plaster model for each team on a 3D printer.   

To create their model of aquaporin-4, the Summit MAPS team used X-ray crystallography data and Jmol, a computer software program that creates three-dimensional representations of molecules. “Models are essential to increasing one’s understanding of the natural world and ease communication,” Dr. Replogle said.  

"Dr. Replogle and I had the privilege of witnessing their confidence grow over the past few months as they researched and studied their protein story,” said Mrs. Suder. “As ninth graders, they represented The Summit well and we look forward to participation in future years. We are very proud of all the students and their hard work."