Langley High School cheerleader Katie Barufka, 17, says she enjoys bucking all the stereotypes on the ditzy cheerleader. And what better way to do just that than racking up victories in a major science competition.
Barufka, a senior, recently won the regional Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology for her microbiology project on Leishmaniasis, a disease spread by infected sand flies, similar to Lyme disease, which has no vaccine.
Barufka’s 20-page research paper is titled “Deletion of Endonuclease G disrupts mitochondrial homeostasis and leads to reduced virulence in the human protozoan parasite Leishmania mexicana.”
Try shouting that on the sidelines at a football game.
“I’ve always been known for cheer, cheer and cheer. But last year I won the [schoolwide] science fair, and everyone was like ‘What the...,’” said Barufka. “[Science and cheerleading] are kind of conflicting interests but I like breaking the stereotype.”
Through her win, Barufka and project partner Montgomery Blair High School student Neil Davey, a Silver Spring resident, advance to the national finals, which will be held Dec. 1-4 in Washington, D.C.
“We wanted to find a way to reduce the virulence [of Leishmania mexicana] without killing the virus, so that the body could build up an immunity to it. No one had done that before, but we did. We tested it on mice,” Barufka said. Leishmania mexicana can be debilitating and even fatal, depending on the patient and treatments given, she said.
Barufka and Davey split a $6,000 scholarship, and will compete for a top prize of $100,000 scholarship, also to split. The partners teamed up in the Siemens Competition after sharing a summer internship at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.
It was during this internship that Barufka said she was attracted to the research idea. Barufka’s mother contracted Lyme disease, also spread through insects, about eight years ago and has struggled to fight off fatigue, joint pain and other symptoms, she said. Because of this, Barufka said she was interested in learning more about similar diseases.
Success in research has added to an already busy schedule, Barufka said.
“Everyone says senior year is kind of a joke after you get all your applications in. But this has been my hardest year yet,” she said. “I’m really busy. This is all [happening] during the fall. And I’m on two cheer teams [one a school and a traveling team]. I have a lot of school stuff work. It’s a lot of caffeine. I was up late a lot of nights.”
The Siemens Competition was created in 1998 by the Siemens Foundation, a nonprofit organization promoting youth STEM education. This year, 2,255 students registered to compete. A total of 1,503 projects were submitted and, from those, 323 students were named semifinalists. That group was eventually whittled down to 93 regional finalists.
“The goal of the competition first and foremost is to recognize the work of students in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math [STEM],” Siemens Foundation President Jeniffer Harper-Taylor said. Each year, the number of participants, diversity of projects and level of competition is raised, she said, adding that this meets Siemens’ goal of getting high schools and students excited about STEM programs.
The Siemens Competition is facilitated by the College Board, which enlists judges and crafts the criterion to decide student rankings. Students’ projects are judged based on quality of research, difficulty, originality, presentation and more, said Harper-Taylor.
“We bring together about 60 judges nationwide who look at these students projects in a blind read,” she said. Students who made it to the regional level, like Barufka, faced a panel of Massachusetts Institute of Technology judges, who hold doctorates in the field on which students are presenting.
While the first part of the regional competition is open to the public and resembles a massive science fair, Barufka said the judges’ questions are asked and answered during a closed-door presentation.
“It’s very intimidating… They take you back for a Q-and-A [lasting about 12 minutes],where they ask you a lot of technical questions,” she said, adding that the questions focused on the level of effort and knowledge displayed by students and as a means to make sure no science mentor or internship leader did the work for students.
Langley High School educators said Barufka is humble about her victories in the Siemens Competition so far, something the school is taking pride in.
“I had no idea Katie was even in the competition, much less a finalist,” said Barufka’s Human Anatomy and Physiology teacher, Betsy Jones. “Earlier in the semester, she informed me she had to miss class to go to Boston [MIT], but I assumed she was visiting a college. Katie, herself, did not tell me she was a finalist, nor did she mention winning the award.”
The school, Jones said, found out through Barufka’s father, who emailed teachers explaining his daughter’s school absences and success.
“[Barufka] is a hard worker and many students who do put forth extra effort do not always get recognized for their efforts,” Jones said. “Katie does not brag about her success. Her peers are quietly proud of her, but do not make a big deal of her success, mostly because Katie doesn’t make a big deal of it.”
Barufka said the added workload of entering the Siemens Competition and making it to the next level has meant missing key events during her last year of high school, such as friends’ birthdays, senior sports banquets and more.
“It kind of stinks because I’ve missed so much… but it’s worth it,” she said. “It’s all about what you make out of it. If we won that would be amazing, but really we’re just happy to have added so much [to the research on Leishmania Mexicana].”