Seventeen-year-old Kayla Applebaum, a senior at Ma’ayanot High School, says she’s “not afraid of being a science nerd.”
The Teaneck resident – one of 300 semi-finalists in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search – told The Jewish Standard that she comes from a family of doctors and others involved in science.
“Growing up, I was inspired by their love of it,” she said, noting that she participated last year in Yeshiva University’s Science Olympiad, focusing on genetics and ecology. Her three younger sisters, she added, are “blossoming scientists and mathematicians.”
Ruth Wang Birnbaum, associate principal of Ma’ayanot, said Kayla’s achievement has “made her dream come true,” since one of her goals has been to galvanize the school’s science research program.
Kayla worked closely with Phyllis Serfaty, the school’s science research coordinator, in the months preceding submission of her paper.
During crunch time, said Birnbaum, “she had to get out of a couple of classes, but the teachers were onboard, allowing her to make up her work.”
According to a statement from organizers of the Intel Science Talent Search, winners have gone on to win seven Nobel Prizes and three National Medals of Science.
“It’s important for a woman to go into science,” said Kayla, who took part this summer in a physics research lab at the Garcia Center of Stony Brook University, where participants were evenly divided between young men and women. Kayla estimates that 18 of the 68 participants were Jewish.
“I was determined to do something with science that summer,” she said, explaining that the application procedure took note of her academic performance – she has studied honors biology, honors chemistry, AP biology, and honors physics – and included teacher recommendations.
Her summer project, which involved studying the effects of certain nano particles on skin cells, was well received. As a result, she continued researching her topic, adding statistical analyses and ultimately submitting her work to the Intel competition.
Her paper, “The Protective Effects of a Multicomponent Polymer Coated Titanium Dioxide (TiO2) on Human Adiocytes and Lambda DNA in the Presence of Ultraviolet (UVA/UVB) Radiation,” built on a longtime interest in skin cells.
“My aunt and uncle are dermatologists,” she said, explaining that her work focused on determining the effects of minerals used in certain sunscreens to deflect ultraviolet radiation.
“There had been studies of upper-layer cells, but we wanted to know if it got even deeper, and once it did, what effect it had on the cells. We took particles and added them to cell cultures to see the effects of it.”
She ultimately determined that the additive, as constituted, was ineffective, but that polymer-coated nano particles could achieve the desired effect.
Kayla, who is leaving this week to visit family in Israel over school break, said that while “science helps clarify the safety of some products, you have to love science to want to do it.”
Making scientific breakthroughs is only one part of Kayla’s life. According to Birnbaum, the senior “is a well-rounded young woman who is not only a fine science mind, Talmud mind, and co-editor in chief of her senior class yearbook,” but studies AP art as well.
“At Ma’ayanot, we strive to teach girls empowerment,” said Birnbaum. “We’re very proud of her accomplishment and excited for her.”
After her graduation in June, Kayla will spend a year in Israel. After that she will attend Stern College, with the intention of pursuing studies in medicine.
Kayla, who has already won $1,000 as an Intel semi-finalist (the school was awarded $1,000 as well), will learn on Jan. 27 whether she has been chosen to join a pool of 40 finalists. Should she win, she could be awarded the top prize of $100,000.
While her family is proud of her achievements, said Kayla, it is clear that her school is equally excited.
“She’s bringing glory to Ma’ayanot,” said Birnbaum.