An independent K-12 school on a beautiful wooded campus, 3 miles from Washington, DC

Science & Engineering Research Center

The goal of Potomac's Science and Engineering Research Center program is to provide our students with the opportunity to do high-level, independent research projects.

Students conduct in-depth study and research of an original topic and address a question previously unanswered in science or engineering. Students work one-on-one with our faculty and with an outside mentor, typically a professional scientist. A summer internship at a research facility or university for 4-8 weeks is a requirement and an important component of the program. Our students have had mentors and internships at a variety of labs including The National Institutes of Health, the J. Craig Ventor Institute, Georgetown University, Yale University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Maryland, and John Hopkins University among others.

In tenth grade, the students who are selected into the program are enrolled in two courses:

1) The Topics in Science and Engineering course begins the program by having the students explore various fields of research and engage in projects that allow them to examine the steps required to properly structure an experiment or project in order to adequately test a hypothesis. When students are reasonably sure of their direction, they contact professionals working within their area of interest and then read current research papers in order to refine their topics. Visits to MIT and also local universities and research facilities expose the students to a range of research fields and provide contacts with possible mentors. The students will complete a formal project proposal for the research they will conduct in their junior and senior years.

2) The Accelerated Integrated Chemistry and Physics course provides students with an integrated, quantitative overview of chemistry and physics. Through problem- solving, mathematical modeling, and laboratory work, the students will learn the core, critical concepts of chemistry and physics and the key features that unify the two disciplines. The central role of mathematics as a universal language of science is emphasized. Upon successful completion of the course, students in the SERC track will be prepared to take Advanced Placement Chemistry and Advanced Placement Physics in their future years at Potomac.

In eleventh grade, students will again take two courses:

1) AP Biology or AP Chemistry or AP Physics

2) Advanced Science Research, which provides the students with an individualized opportunity to pursue the research question they proposed at the end of their tenth grade year. The students have a class period each day dedicated to working on their projects. Ideally, students will have both a Potomac science teacher and an outside mentor advising them during the school year. Students are expected to spend time in the summer after eleventh grade working with their outside mentor or taking part in a science research internship program. The time commitment for the summer work or internship is usually six weeks.

In twelfth grade, students will take one or two AP science courses and finish their research by documenting and presenting their work. Some students will elect to submit their research findings to national competitions including the Siemens Competition, the Intel Talent Search, and the Georgetown Symposium. The SERC program is selective. Interested students may apply in the spring of their ninth grade year.

Recent SERC Projects

Polyurethane digestion by fungi
The discovery of microorganisms that can efficiently degrade polyester polyurethane (PUR) has become a pivotal goal in promoting bioremediation as an applicable solution to plastic waste. Endophytic fungi were isolated from a variety of plants on campus and tested on their ability to digest polyurethane (PUR) in soluble or insoluble form. Members of the Glomerella and Cladosporium genera were found to grow on PUR as sole carbon source in both conditions. Current experiments are underway to characterize the activity of the enzyme responsible for this digestion, as well as the transcriptional differences in the fungi grown under varied environmental conditions.

Protein 3D modeling to explain cytoplasmic sequestration of nuclear proteins
This project focused on the cytoplasmic protein 14-3-3 s and the nuclear regulator fox-o1, two are known regulators of cellular pathways. The goal was to generate visual models of the interactions between foxo1 and 14-3-3σ. The main software used were I-TASSER modeling to generated full-length 3d conformations of foxo1, and Rosetta dock to model the interactions between the two proteins. The simulations suggested that the prongs of 14-3-3σ attract the foxo1 consensus binding site revealed by phosphorylation, in a manner similar to a horseshoe magnet attracting a dipole.

Effect of the plastic additive BHT on the growth and development of drosophila melanogaster Additives to plastic have become essential to achieve specific properties. Some of these additives include heat stabilizers, antioxidants, lubricants, and anti-static agents. These chemicals can leach in the environment and become toxic, questioning their safety. This project focuses on testing the effect of one such additive on the growth and development of the fruit fly, drosophila melanogaster.

PCR test for Lyme disease
Lyme disease is an infectious, vector-born disease that affects the lives of over 300,000 people in the United States every year. The current testing works well under ideal conditions - sufficient, measurable quantities of the antibodies after an incubation period after the initial infection. However, it also leads to both false-positives and false-negative diagnosis and the need for a new diagnostic test that is more efficient, effective, and reliable is high. This project aims at developing a PCR test for Lyme disease with high sensitivity and specificity to target strands of Borrelia burgdorferi in a patient’s blood sample.

Encapsulating islet cells in a hydrogel matrix with extracellular matrix (ECM) proteins, heparin, and growth factors
Type 1 diabetes (t1d) is a chronic illness that is caused by an autoimmune reaction resulting in the loss of insulin-producing β-cells in pancreatic islets. This project focuses on the encapsulation of pancreatic islet cells within a hydrogel capsule bonded with heparin, vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF-a), transforming growth factor beta 1 (TGFβ-1), and components from the extracellular matrix (ECM), such as collagen and laminin.

Mangrove based water filtration system
Clean water is an essential resource, being a prerequisite for human life. As the human population continues to grow, the demand for clean water will increase accordingly, aggravating the problem of fresh water availability throughout the world. Aquaporins are membrane proteins that regulate water transport through cells and they promote permeability orders of magnitude higher than commercial membranes when embedded in synthetic polymers. The incorporation of these proteins into a proven system, a biomimetic mangrove structure, could yield higher efficiency in water desalination.

Green yeast
Chloroplast symbiosis has been described as the mechanism by which how the sea slug, Elysia chlorotica lives photosynthetically. Like sea slugs use photosynthesis to create energy, yeast uses fermentation to make ethanol. Yeast is a unique organism because they choose fermentation even in the presence of oxygen, and they react in a variety of environmental settings. It is also the main organism used in biofuel production as carbohydrate sources are fed to the yeast for ethanol production. The goal of this project is to implant a photosynthetic system into a fermentative organism.

Improving the efficiency of solar cells
Using phosphorescent algae, solar cells electrical output will be measured to evaluate its efficiency. The goal of this study is to expand the time solar cells can be used, since phosphorescent algae emit light at night.

Improving tactile sensitivity in prosthetic hands and robotic systems
The current technology for robotic and prosthetic hands in terms of tactile sensitivity is developing but not widely accessible. Will mimicking the ridges of a human fingerprint improve tactile sensitivity in prosthetic fingers? This project researches what type of sensors are ideal for gaining tactile sensitivity in prosthetic fingers (capacitive, piezoelectric, force sensitive) and what design of the artificial fingerprint will provide the best tactile sensitivity in the prosthetic fingers.

Optimizing photocatalysts for solar-fuel production by altering nanostructures
Solar energy is one of the most promising renewable energy technologies for its potential to provide carbon-free energy on the terawatt scale. However, one of the most significant problems facing the integration of solar energy is efficiently converting it into chemical fuels for storage. This project analyzes the effects of different nanoarchitectures on a basic cobalt catalyst in a photoelectrochemical cell and their relation to the photocatalytic properties of a certain material?

Effect of short wavelengths of light on ab-42 fibril formation
Alzheimer’s disease is known to be caused by plaque deposition in the brain. These plaques are fibrils that polymerize from short peptides known as ab-42 and resemble fibrils that have been characterized in prion disorders. Prion fibril formation has been shown to be sensitive to UV light. This study analyzes the effect of UV light on the formation of fibrils from the ab-42 peptide.

Hyaluronic Acid Promotes Chondrogenesis In Human Mesenchymal Progenitor Cells Derived From War-Traumatized Muscle Tissue Within A Fibrin Hydrogel Scaffold
Regeneration of cartilage in the clinical treatment of traumatic extremity wounds aims at implanting engineered tissue at the site of injury. The most promising technique currently involves combining cells of stem cell lineage with biocompatible scaffolds in order to promote reliable differentiation of the cells in the patient. The purpose of this study is to analyze whether the presence of hyaluronic acid (ha) promotes chondrocyte differentiation from human mesenchymal progenitor cells (MPCs) in an engineered fibrin matrix supplemented with increasing concentration of ha.

S1p/S1P1 signaling pathway is necessary for canine hemangiosarcoma cell growth and viability
Canine hemangiosarcoma (HSA) is a malignant neoplasm of the vascular endothelium, which affects millions of dogs. The molecular mechanisms leading to HSA are unknown, and no effective treatments exist. The aim of this project was to study the sphingosine 1-phosphate (s1p) signaling pathway in HSA for the first time. The hypothesis was to determine if increased s1p/s1p1 signaling plays an important role in HSA progression.