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Computer Science And Microbiology Research Pays Off For Maryland And Virginia Students With Siemens Competition Regional Win At Massachusetts Institute Of Technology

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Nov. 3, 2012 /PRNewswire/ -- Months of dedication and hard work in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) paid off tonight for three students named National Finalists in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology, the nation's premier research competition.  Research based on a computer vision approach to geolocating photographs earned top honors and the $3,000 Individual scholarship for Samuel (Sam) Pritt of Walkersville, Maryland.  Microbiology research with applications in leishmaniasis vaccine development won the $6,000 Team scholarship for Neil Davey of Gaithersburg, Maryland, and Katie Barufka of Reston, Virginia.  

The students presented their research this weekend to a panel of judges from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, host of the Region Five Finals. They are now invited to present their work on a national stage at the National Finals in Washington, DC, December 1-4, 2012, where $500,000 in scholarships will be awarded, including two top prizes of $100,000.  The Siemens Competition, a signature program of the Siemens Foundation, is administered by the College Board.

"These students have invested time, energy and talent in tackling challenging scientific research at a young age," said Jeniffer Harper-Taylor, president of the Siemens Foundation.  "The recognition they have won today demonstrates that engagement in STEM is an investment well worth making."

The Winning Individual

Sam Pritt, a home schooled senior, won the individual category and a $3,000 college scholarship for research that addresses an important real-world problem of determining where a photograph was taken.  His work has broad potential applications, from tourism and organizing photos on the web to counter-terrorism.

In his project, Geolocation of Photographs by Means of Horizon Matching with Digital Elevation Models, Sam combined his twin passions of computer programming and image processing to develop an algorithm for geolocating photographs by matching the appearance of horizon curves extracted from images to those generated from digital elevation maps (DEMs).

"Sam demonstrated significant initiative and creativity in developing a computer vision approach that uses publicly available DEMs to accomplish 'geo-localization,'" said competition judge Dr. Pawan Sinha, Professor, MIT Department of Brain & Cognitive Sciences.  "His initial results are encouraging and he has plans to augment his approach to bring it closer to real-world deployment."   

Sam is a student intern in the Frederick National Lab for Cancer Research and a student member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).  Passionate about playing the piano, he is especially proud of winning the Frederick Regional Youth Orchestra 2012 Concerto Competition.  He presented a paper at the IEEE 2012 International Geoscience and Remote Sensing Symposium in Munich, Germany and was a finalist and second place grand award winner at the 2012 International Science and Engineering Fair.  Sam plans to major in computer science and pursue a career in chemical or biomedical engineering.  He was mentored by his father, Dr. Mark Pritt.

The Winning Team

Neil Davey, a junior at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, and Katie Barufka, a senior at Langley High School in McLean, Virginia, won the team category and will share a $6,000 scholarship for research that brings us a step closer to a vaccine for the debilitating infectious disease Leishmaniasis. 

In their project, Deletion of Endonuclease G disrupts mitochondrial homeostasis and leads to reduced virulence in the human protozoan parasite Leishmania Mexicana, the team used a technique called "homologous recombination" to 'knock out' the gene EndoG from Leishmania mexicana (the causative agent in cutaneous Leishmaniasis) to reduce the organism's viability.  Such an "attenuated" form of Leishmania has the potential to be used as a vaccine. 

"Neil and Katie have made an important advance towards the generation of a vaccine for Leishmaniasis," said competition judge Dr. Jagesh V. Shah, Associate Professor of Systems Biology, Harvard Medical School.  "Previous attempts at vaccines have suffered from the inability to promote long-lasting immunity or have the effect of causing chronic infection.  The team was especially creative in choosing the gene EndoG because they understood that it would cause long-term defects in the organism's viability when in the human host.  They were thus able to find a sweet spot where they believe the organism will live long enough to generate an immune response but not long enough to cause an infection."

Neil was a finalist at The Indus Entrepreneurs (TIE), a global entrepreneurship competition.  He holds two patent applications related to autonomous robots and one protecting the SWAP business plan.  Neil tutors students in science, engineering and math and is a member of the varsity tennis team.  Fluent in Sanskrit, Gujarat and Hindi, he volunteers and teaches at Samskrita Bharati, a nonprofit organization that promotes spoken Sanskrit.  Neil plans to study biochemistry, finance, and/or South Asian Studies.  He would like to work in the field of drug and vaccine discovery, and eventually become a CEO of a pharmaceutical company.

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