Science champ finds her passion

By on March 25, 2015

Hopes ALS research leads to improved treatment

The study of ALS is personal for WHS Science Fair Grand Champion Shohini Banerjee. She presents her research at F&M this week. (photo by Preston Whitcraft)

The study of ALS is personal for WHS Science Fair Grand Champion Shohini Banerjee. She presents her research at F&M this week. (photo by Preston Whitcraft)

Shohini Banerjee is always looking for the next opportunity to challenge herself.

At 16, the Warwick High School sophomore has poured herself into poetry and classical Indian dance.

“That’s where I always found my passion,” she said.

But when an opportunity came for Shohini to enter the school science fair, the Lititz girl saw her chance to make a personal contribution to the community. It was a project that would be worthy of receiving the science fair grand champion award.

Shohini found her inspiration in a friend of the family – Scott Hollinger, a motivational speaker who suffers from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Hollinger has spent many years touring churches and schools in Pennsylvania to share his story. A noted athlete who wrestled in high school, mastered white water rapids and climbed towering structures, Hollinger now speaks through the animated voice of a computer and gets around in a wheelchair.

“I discovered the true meaning of faith after I met Mr. Hollinger,” Shohini said.

The science project led Shohini to discover many things she didn’t know about ALS. She learned that half of the people who receive an early diagnosis will die within the first two years. While a drug is available to help extend someone’s life, she said, it only does so by three to six months.

Doctors only starting using a 1960s-era chemotherapy to start to treat ALS a few years ago, Shohini said. The catch is that it has many side effects, including hearing loss, kidney damage and the possibility of cancer development, she said.

While some scientists believe ALS may be caused by oxidative stress &tstr; the process of free radicals building to toxic levels and then damaging cells &tstr; Shohini decided to see how an antioxidant treatment might help treat ALS.

“It’s completely harmless,” she said of the treatment. “I really hope it could be something that would bring comfort and help to those who suffer with ALS.”

Since she started researching the topic last summer, her project started to spark a new-found interest in the sciences and chemistry. After winning the grand champion award at the high school fair, Shohini had the chance to give her full presentation to Hollinger and his family.

Her father, Bob Banerjee, said the Hollingers were pleased that Shohini had decided to present ALS from their point-of-view.

“This isn’t just a science fair project,” he said. “This is personal.”

Giving the presentation in front of Hollinger was a little “intense” for the high school student, but she felt his feedback was necessary for her to move on to the March 25 Lancaster County Science Fair at Franklin & Marshall College.

She had to stop from tearing up while the family watched her present her research.

While she prepares her presentation for the county level – giving practice speeches in front of anyone who will listen – Shohini doesn’t want her research to end there. She hopes she might eventually have the chance to test her theory on live tissue and expand on her data.

“I have this new passion for science and chemistry,” she said. “Thanks to this presentation, I think I’ve found what I really want to do for the rest of my life.”

Rebecca Hanlon is a freelance feature writer for the Record Express. She welcomes reader feedback at mrsbeccahanlon@gmail.com. 

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