Saratoga Springs High School senior Cristina DeMeo knows all too well how devastating diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) can be.
“ALS runs in my family. My grandfather had it and my great-grandfather had it,” DeMeo said.
Though she wasn’t able to meet her great-grandfather, she knew her grandfather, Jimmy Kilgallen, who worked in the composing room at The Daily Gazette. He died when she was a child and it ignited her interest in studying the disease.
“I just saw how there was really nothing that could be done at that point and how we just needed to learn more to be able to create treatments because there weren’t any at that point. There weren’t any effective treatments,” DeMeo said.
Over the last year, she’s won several awards for her ALS research with the RNA Institute’s summer program at SUNY Albany. Called “A Differential Gene Expression and Alternative Splicing Analysis of ALS-Causing Mutations,” her project used bioinformatics to analyze RNA-sequencing data and find similarities among different types of ALS-causing mutations.
Her research won first place in February in the Biomedical 1 section of the Eastern New York 17th Annual Subregional Junior Science and Humanities Symposium. In March, it took the senior division first-place prize at the 2021 Greater Capital Region Science and Engineering Fair. Most recently, it won fourth place in the computational biology and bioinformatics section of the international 2021 Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair.
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“We couldn’t be prouder of Cristina and her work,” said Andy Berglund, director of the RNA Institute and professor in Biological Sciences at the University at Albany. He noted that DeMeo’s project “provides an excellent example of the educational and research power of RNA — a scientific tool to improve human health.”
For DeMeo, the research began at Saratoga Springs High School three years ago in the science research program, which allows students to study and conduct research on topics of their choice starting sophomore year. DeMeo credits teachers Frances Lohnes and Peter Robinson for their help in getting her research off the ground. She also thanked her aunt, Regina Reals, who is a science teacher in the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake school district, for her help with the research.
However, an important aspect of the project was working with a lab and that was difficult to find, especially one that would work with a high school student during the pandemic.
“I had to look for different labs that had some background in ALS because it’s a pretty rare disease. It’s about 1 in 20,000 cases. So for a long time, I couldn’t find anything with that background that I was looking for and the RNA Institute was really great because they do have that background and they were really kind and welcoming,” DeMeo said.
Last summer, she worked with advisors like Berglund to conduct her research remotely, which made her rethink and restructure her project.
“Initially, I had planned to do a wet lab experiment. I hadn’t thought really much about computational biology or bioinformatics. But when everything went remote, I wasn’t really sure what to do. I knew I still wanted to do research on ALS and the pandemic wasn’t really going to stop that but I just had to change the mode in which I was going to complete this research and it was really great because the RNA Institute was offering this summer bioinformatics course so I was able to learn that and find a different way to complete my research,” DeMeo said.
This summer she’ll finally be able to get into the lab at the RNA Institute and plans to expand on her research, looking into some of the commonalities she found between those mutations and find ways to stop the deregulation of them to see if it might slow the progression of ALS.
After that, she’ll be going to Harvard University and plans to major in neuroscience on a pre-med track.
“In the near future, in my undergrad years, I definitely will continue with my research because I think there’s a lot that still can be done and needs to be done,” DeMeo said.
Her mom, Stacey, who is a physical therapist, is part of the reason she also hopes to become a practicing doctor.
“She’s really been an inspiration too because she goes to people’s houses every day and she helps seniors mostly and she can help them learn to walk again and it’s really amazing to see how grateful they are and how much of an impact that she makes on other people’s lives,” DeMeo said.
Her advice to incoming seniors:
“The biggest thing is not to sell yourself short because when I was trying to find a lab I didn’t think that anyone would really let a high schooler do real experiments, conduct real research and I was really amazed by how accepting everybody was and how kind they were and how willing they were to mentor me and help me create a research project.”