Some of Virginia’s brightest high school students will compete at the annual Virginia State Science and Engineering Fair on April 6 at the Berglund Special Events Center in Roanoke.

Hosted by volunteers from the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, 274 students will present their projects.

“More than ever, we need scientist citizens to help us make informed decisions based on insights derived from facts, built on reason and logic, but also infused with vision,” said Michael Friedlander, vice president for health sciences and technology at Virginia Tech and executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. “These young people are our future. They deserve encouragement and congratulations for what they have already achieved, and it should be reassuring to everyone that their best is yet to come.”

Dozens of volunteer judges from across the state will interview the students and evaluate their projects. After judging concludes at 2:30 p.m., the fair is open to the public until 4 p.m., when the award ceremony begins.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to show off all of the terrific academic things that are happening right here in Roanoke, and hopefully will help us attract students to come to Roanoke for both education and careers in health care and biomedical research,” said David Trinkle, associate dean for community and culture at the VTC School of Medicine.

Projects from five local students have already qualified for the International Science and Engineering Fair taking place this May in Phoenix, Arizona.

One of the projects was developed by students working in the laboratory of Stephen LaConte at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, who is also an associate professor in department of biomedical engineering and mechanics at Virginia Tech.

“Working in the lab has been a fantastic experience for me,” said Erik Scarlatescu, a junior at Hidden Valley High School. “I am very fortunate to have a mentor who is willing to work with students.”

Scarlatescu and his research partner, Harrison Huang, trained a neural network computer program to aggregate brain-scanning data. Using these data, the students could determine where people are looking during their MRI brain scans. 

“My partner and I have put a lot of effort and passion into our project, and we are excited to share that with others,” Scarlatescu said.

Among the other students who will compete in Phoenix is Kevin Sheng, a junior at Cave Spring High School. Sheng created a big data aggregation technique that doctors can use to track a cancer patient’s gene signatures, allowing them to prescribe a more personalized medical approach.

He was mentored by Robin Varghese, who trained at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and is now an assistant professor of biomedical sciences at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Sheng’s father, Zhi Sheng, is a molecular cancer biologist and an assistant professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. His mother, Yanping Liang, is a research associate in the institute’s Center for Neurobiology Research, which is directed by associate professor Michael Fox.

Logan Dunkenberger, a senior at Glenvar High School, has been researching disease progression in Epstein-Barr Virus infection, a common pathogen in the herpes family that causes mononucleosis infections, and its treatment in patients with lymphoma.

She has been conducting her research in the lab of John Chappell at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, who is also an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics at Virginia Tech.

Last year, her discoveries won an international science fair “Best of Category” award. Ranked a grand award alternate at the Western Virginia regional fair this year, Dunkenberger hopes to qualify for the international fair a second time this weekend.

The Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and VTC School of Medicine have committed to hosting the Virginia State Science and Engineering Fair this year and in 2020.

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