Wellington School senior Adriane Thompson hopes her qualification as a finalist in a national science-research contest will lead to breakouts in crop genetics and agriculture.

She said she also plans to advocate to national legislators on behalf of STEM education in public schools.

Since January 2019, Thompson has spent more than 700 hours researching the epigenetic mechanisms of gene control in corn.

For the study, the 17-year-old from Westerville has worked in Ohio State University professor Jay Hollick's molecular-genetics lab for months, and her work could help scientists and farmers learn how to grow healthier corn or other crops.

An aspect of the research deals with genetic expression and repression.

Genes encode proteins and proteins dictate cell function, according to nature.com. Therefore, the thousands of genes expressed in a particular cell determine what that cell can do, and control of these processes plays a critical role in determining what proteins are present in a cell and in what amounts.

In addition, the way in which a cell processes its RNA transcripts and newly made proteins also greatly influences protein levels.

"Some genes need to be repressed, meaning that they're not at all expressed by the corn plant," Thompson said. "I've been able to identify what could be a new mechanism to repress those genes.

"Even though this seems really complicated and doesn't seem to have a connection to modern agriculture, this repression is absolutely crucial for normal corn development.

"So why these genes are repressed and the way that they're repressed has a lot of impacts as to how we could be growing groups or where we're growing them and countless other things that could have impacts on them."

Thompson's work impressed officials at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. and the Society for Science & the Public so much that Jan. 22 she was named one of 40 finalists for the Regeneron Science Talent Search 2020. The contest, which had 1,993 applicants, is said to be the nation's oldest science and math competition for U.S. high school seniors, according to the society.

"The finalists were selected based on their projects' scientific rigor and their potential to become world-changing scientists and leaders," a Society for Science and the Public news release said.

In addition to a $27,000 cash award to Thompson, the Wellington School will receive a $2,000 STEM -- which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- grant, and Thompson will travel March 5 to 11 to Washington, D.C., to present her research to judges and compete for additional awards ranging from $40,000 to $250,000.

The finalists also will interact with leading scientists, meet with U.S. Congress members and display their projects to the public March 8.

"This year's finalists are part of the next generation of brilliant minds who -- through the pursuit of science and innovation -- can address many of society's most urgent challenges and help improve our world," said George D. Yancopoulos, co-founder, president and chief scientific officer of Regeneron.

At Ohio State, Thompson's work was driven by Hollick's lab, which is centered on epigenetic mechanisms of gene control, chromosome structure and function.

Hollick called her understanding of molecular biology "very advanced" and said it allowed her to quickly contribute to his lab's research efforts.

"Adriane used a technically difficult assay-quantifying specific RNA species to validate some preliminary results that challenged a prevailing molecular model of gene control specific to plants," Hollick said. "Her results both support a novel hypothesis we've been testing and argue against another idea motivated by earlier data.

"This better understanding of how genes are turned on and off in the corn plant promises new opportunities and strategies for future crop-improvement efforts. It's very inspiring to see high school students like Adriane seek out opportunities to engage with basic research ongoing at OSU."

Thompson wants her work to further epigenetic research. She said she also would be pleased to see her research lead to advances in agriculture and corn production.

"Genes that you turn off could have to do with anything," she said. "They could have to do with height, they could have to do with development of their roots, they could have to do with development of their kernels.

"So we've been able to identify some genes that directly impact how healthy the corn is -- if the kernels are shriveled and small, or if they're strong and normal looking. The same for the height of the plant. We've been able to identify some genes that could identify that.

"This is a lot more about just the understanding of it. Because plants have such complex genomes, it's really important before you go in and mess around with different genes to have a basic understanding of how they function on their own.

"This could help with our understanding of how the corn, on its own, can regulate growth in genes."

Thompson was able to launch her research at Ohio State, as well as earlier work studying the genetics of yeast at Denison University, through Wellington's Independent Science Research program.

Dr. Brandon Sullivan, Thompson's research adviser at Wellington, said the Upper Arlington school's philosophy is that every student deserves the opportunity to chase his or her unique passion.

Extended curriculum at the school includes Wonderlab, a research and creative-works incubator that connects students with resources, including business and other professionals, college professors and researchers.

"By connecting them with the resources and experts integral to further exploring areas of deep personal interest, we can accelerate student ideas in bold and creative ways," Sullivan said. "Adriane joined Wonderlab as a junior."

In addition to breakthroughs in epigenetics and corn, Thompson sees her selection as a contest finalist as a chance to advocate for students in Ohio and beyond to have access to STEM education.

She particularly is interested in promoting more STEM programming in public schools.

"Meeting with politicians -- I'm really excited about that," she said. "I think especially Wellington's programs have done a lot to shape my research career."

Although she has yet to decide, Thompson plans to study biology or molecular biology.

She said she has not decided on college or university but is eager to continue her education and research career.

"I think all of this, since it's so technical, could seem very distant from anything that would affect your everyday person, but I think it's really important to understand -- especially with all of the up-and-coming genetic modification research -- that we also need to understand exactly what we're modifying," Thompson said. "Because plants are such complex organisms, there are so many different pathways and mechanisms that we just don't understand or don't even know about.

"Building that understanding is something I hope can actually have a significant difference."

nellis@thisweeknews.com

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