While some students might be wondering as they sit in their science or math class, What am I going to use this for? Albany Academy student Alydaar Rangwala is already using his science education to fight a rare disease.
A senior at the school, Rangwala is competing in the final phase of the 2011 Intel Science Talent Search in Washington D.C. on March 15, as one of the top 40 high school students from throughout the nation, with the possibility of winning a $100,000 prize.
With the top ten students on tap to receive a monetary award, Rangwala seems more interested in meeting other competitors just like him, most of whom he said he has spoken with already and has classified them as `great people.`
`Even parallel to the competition, it’s that experience of just meeting them, interacting with them, learning from them and making lifelong friends there,` he said. `So while we’re all there, it is a part of the competition but it is also just a great forum for like-minded people to meet. These are all kind of kids that will be with you for a long time.`
The disease Rangwala is focusing on is Langerhans’ Cell Histiocytosis (LCH), which is an autoimmune disease that occurs mostly in children from one to three years of age with an overload of histiocytes, a form of white blood cell, known as Langerhans, according to Hisitio Cytosis of America. This can result in bone pains, lung, liver or spleen dysfunction and sometimes mental deterioration.
The disease acts like a cancer but is not really one. Rangwala said it has a high mortality rate, and other than going through chemotherapy, there is not really a well documented treatment. In his mission to help people, Rangwala has been researching to try and find a better treatment option.
What he has discovered is he can use a low-power UV light to attract the dendritic cell, which is an immune cell that identifies what’s a foreign particle and what are your own cells, since they always move towards the light. Because the light is so low-energy, it passes through the layer of a person’s skin, pulls them up towards the surface and keeps them from identifying the different cells for which to attack.
Rangwala said this would be more effective than chemotherapy, which shuts down your immune system to prevent it from attacking your cells, making you more susceptible to diseases that could be fatal.
`Compared to chemotherapy, it’s more effective because it’s directly targeting these cells,` he said. `And it’s safer because the light is really low-energy. Most people associate UV with cancer and bad sort of things but it’s almost like the visible light you’re exposed to right now.`
The project allows Rangwala to apply just what he has learned in his high school science classes to real world situations. But his interest had begun when he was in middle school through his research paper and a middle school science fair he participated in.
`Those research projects really showed me what research can do,` he said, `and the exploration of finding new things and having that be used as applications in the real world.`
When Rangwala discusses the project he is working on for the competition, he can’t help but stress enough that the ultimate purpose for it is to help people. It plays into the humanitarian side of him as he heads the Red Cross Club at Albany Academy and is a member of the board of directors. He volunteers with the Ronald McDonald house as well.
He also hopes to work somewhere in the medical field as possibly a physician or looking into the economics of health care and how the whole system works. But science is at the core of what he’s looking to do in life.
One of his teachers, Bo Burnam, chair of the Science Department at The Albany Academies, is extremely proud of Rangwala, as he said he noticed his potential when he instructed him during Chemistry.
`This is some fantastic piece that is above in beyond probably any other student I’ll ever see,` he said. `It’s pretty amazing.`
Burnam said the entire project has been Rangwala, and it is something he has been pursuing for some time. He also commends Rangwala for his perseverance through long and sometimes tedious research, as well as fighting through moments of failure to reach his goal.
Rangwala relates it to the game of golf, and it was an analogy that even caught Burnam by surprise.
`I would say it’s the most like golf where you hit that one good shot and it keeps you coming back,` he said. `It’s a lot of moments where things don’t work out and it’s not going anywhere and you can’t do anything with it, but there are really great moments where you have an experiment that works and you find something really cool. And those are the moments that make it really worth it.`
The program at Albany Academy is what Burnam believes helps excel some of the students doing their independent research projects into real-life situations, allowing them to get academic preparation they wouldn’t find anywhere else in the area.
`It is post-graduate work,` said Burnam of Rangwala’s project. `I’ll say that right now.`
Rangwala has not decided on what college he wants to go to just yet. But he said he has already been accepted to Stanford and Yale, and has applied to Harvard,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton and a management technology program at the University of Pennsylvania.
Still, it’s the passion he has for science that helps him continue in the field as it provides insight into how the world works. Even when he is handed an assignment to read chapters in a text book he doesn’t view it as homework, but more as a necessity to get ahead.
`Learning all of this material you have to learn and reading papers was not like, ‘Here’s homework I have to do,’` he said. `It’s more like, ‘Let me read it so I know this so I’m better prepared when I do the project or when I run an experiment. You’re doing it because you want to do it, not because it’s something assigned to you.“