Rochester resident takes first prize at state science fair

May 7, 2018

Emma Keeler of Rochester took first prize at the Massachusetts State Science and Engineering Fair, held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on May 4-5,  with her project "Bioprospecting for Benthic Fungi and Their Bactericidal Antibiotics."

Keeler's science project intended to ascertain whether culture samples taken from near an ocean vent, and from the benthic region of the ocean (the top layers of the ocean floor, mostly) could produce vaccinations that are effective against virus pathogens.

Keeler believed that any species living near an ocean vent had an extra resistance to toxins, due to ingesting the toxins released from the vents. She had difficulty testing out her theory, though. Because the specimens live on the ocean floor, they're difficult and expensive to obtain.

Keeler, who hopes to study pharmacology and antibiotics in college, had already interned with geophysicist Dr. Virginia Edgcomb at the Woods Hole Institute. Edgcomb happened to have samples arriving from the Guaymas Basin, off of the coast of California when she thought of Keeler. Together, Edgcomb and Keeler decided that studying the samples would blend Keeler's interest in ocean vent organisms and antibiotics.

When Keeler, a junior at Falmouth Academy, screened the fungi grown from the culture samples, she found that 86 percent of the fungi (six of the seven plants) showed activity against the virus pathogens they were exposed to.

In addition, 82 percent of the fungi samples "completed inhibition," which means they were able to fight and remove all traces of the pathogens. A further 18 percent removed most, but not all, of the traces of the pathogen.

At the science fair, Keeler also received the Applied Biomath Award, the Naval Science Award, and is an alternate to the Harvard Summer Secondary Program. Emma will compete at the International Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburgh, PA, next week where over 77 countries will be represented and more than $5 million in scholarships and prizes will be awarded.

Falmouth Academy junior Grace Russell, of Mattapoisett, was awarded an Honorable Mention for her project, “The Effect of Lowered Oxygen Levels on Hermit Crab Behavior.”