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Chemistry

Mount Sinai Ocean Sciences Bowl team co-advisers David Chase and Glynis Nau-Ritter with members, Ariele Mule, Ben May, Claire Dana and Jonathan Yu. Photo from Glynis Nau-Ritter

Mount Sinai High School’s Ocean Sciences Bowl team is going national.

The group recently went head-to-head at Stony Brook University against 16 other teams throughout the state, and won first place at the regional Bay Scallop Bowl, an academic competition testing the students’ knowledge of marine sciences, including biology, chemistry, physics and geology. Mount Sinai’s 28-27 win against Great Neck South High School clinched its spot in the National Ocean Sciences Bowl, where they’ll join 25 teams from across the country in Corvallis, Oregon from April 20 to 23.

“Going in, we were skeptical, but once we started going through the day, our confidence really built up and everybody got to shine.”

—Ben May

On Feb. 18, the school’s four-student “A” team — senior Ben May, junior Jonathan Yu, sophomore Claire Dana, and freshman Ariele Mule — was one of two left standing after competing in a series of 10 fast-paced, undefeated buzzer, with the next determining the winner. With three seconds left on the clock, Great Neck South ran out of time on a bonus question that would’ve made it the winner, and Mount Sinai came out victorious. The high school has now placed first in 10 of the 16 annual Bay Scallop Bowls.

“It was probably the most exciting competition we’ve had in the Ocean Bowl,” said team co-advisor Glynis Nau-Ritter, a science teacher at the high school. “We work them hard and it pays off.”

Co-advisor David Chase echoed Nau-Ritter’s excitement.

“The students here have not only won the competition, but they’ve expanded their knowledge,” he said. “I’m very proud to be able to contribute to their success, and it’s great to be working with the best of the best.”

May, the team’s captain, said he and his teammates experienced “the ultimate coming-from-behind story” after going through a reconstruction year. May was the only returning member of the “A” team from last year, as the others had all graduated.

“It was thrilling to win and have the experience with so many people who share my love of the ocean.”

—Claire Dana

“Going in, we were skeptical, but once we started going through the day, our confidence really built up and everybody got to shine,” May said. “It was the closest competition I’ve ever been part of. We had no control over it. The other team captain and I were very friendly and it was a bonding experience. The stress of it really pulled us together.”

Calling nationals “a nerd’s dream,” May expressed pride for each of his teammates and said to prepare for the nationals, they met to study over winter break and will be meeting several days a week leading up to the nationwide competition.

“It was thrilling to win and have the experience with so many people who share my love of the ocean,” Dana said. “It was a great surprise, and I thought we all found pride in each other. We were all super ecstatic.”

In addition to competing in the nationals and receiving an all-expenses paid trip to Oregon, each of the four Mount Sinai students received a check for $400 for their victory.

The highest the Mount Sinai team has placed is fourth at nationals. If the students place in the top three or four teams, there are other monetary awards, as well as a trophy and possible student accessories like a netbook. The team could also potentially win a field trip to various research stations, like the Caribbean or West Coast.

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From left, Isaac Carrico with Cannon, 5, and Elizabeth Boon with Sheridan, 16 months, at a beach in North Carolina. Photo by Jim Hinckley

When bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, they enter a category that spurs scientists and doctors to search for alternative remedies.

Bacteria can live singly, in what’s called the planktonic state, in groups or colonies, in which case they form a biofilm, or in numerous possibilities in between. In the biofilm state, they become more resistant to antibiotics, which increases the urgency to find a way to break up the bacterial party.

Elizabeth Boon, an associate professor of chemistry at Stony Brook University, has worked with a gas that, in some species of bacteria, appears to affect biofilm formation. While the details vary from one species to another, scientists have found that low concentrations of nitric oxide most often cause bacteria to leave biofilms.

Boon has discovered nitric oxide-sensing proteins in several strains of bacteria, which might help shed light on how this gas acts as a trigger for bacteria.

Boon’s discoveries are “innovative because they provide a previously important missing link between how bacteria behave in the human body and how the human system fails to counteract bacterial infection and the inflammation it causes,” explained Nicole Sampson, professor and chair in the Department of Chemistry.

Sampson, who called Boon a “rising star in chemical biology,” said her colleague’s work is “providing a much needed molecular explanation for the communication that occurs between bacteria and animals.”

Biofilms have implications for human health, Boon said. While they can be positive, generally speaking, she suggested, they are negative.

“A lot of diseases are caused by biofilms,” while biofilms may play a role with others as well, Boon said. “Open wounds that won’t heal are thought to be the result of biofilm injections around the wound, while people with cystic fibrosis get infections around their lungs.”

Biofilms also may play a part in hospital-borne infections. In a biofilm, bacteria are up to 1,000 times more resistant to antibiotics, Boon said. The exact concentration at which the bacteria switches between a signal from the gas to a group defense varies from one species of bacteria to another.

Similar to hemoglobin, which binds to oxygen in red blood cells and carries it around the body, this protein attaches to nitric oxide. The sensor protein usually causes a change that alters the concentration of cyclic di-GMP, a common bacterial-signaling molecule.

“The iron-containing protein we discovered has a sensitivity to nitric oxide” in low concentration, she said. In terms of a possible treatment of conditions that might improve with a reduction in biofilms, Boon explained that simply blocking the receptor for nitric oxide would cause considerably more harm than good because “anything we could think of to bind would interfere with our own nitric oxide or oxygen-binding protein,” she said.

Still, after the gas binds to the bacteria, there are reactions later on that are exclusive to bacteria.

Boon has also discovered a second protein that binds to nitric oxide, which is called NosP, for nitric oxide-sending protein. This protein has a different architecture from the original HNOx protein and may help explain how those same bacteria without HNOx still respond to the same gas.

Boon recognizes the potential opportunity to use any information for biofilm infections.

Boon, who is working with scientists at Stony Brook, Columbia and at Justus-Leibig-Universität Giessen in Germany, is proposing to work with computational biologists to screen the library of virtual molecules against bacterial proteins.

Boon was nearing the end of her Ph.D. research when she started working with proteins. She did her postdoctoral research in a lab that was characterizing iron proteins. The lab was studying nitric oxide in mammals.

Boon’s lab is down the hall from her husband’s, Isaac Carrico, who is in the same department. The chemists met in graduate school at the California Institute of Technology. The couple lives in Stony Brook with their 5-year-old son, Cannon, and their 16-month-old daughter, Sheridan.

As for her work, Boon is eager to continue to find answers to so many unanswered questions.

“We’re constantly learning, which is subtly shifting the direction of our research,” she said. “That will continue for a long time [because] there’s a whole lot we don’t understand.”