David Pegado's quest for challenge has taken him beyond high school laboratories into the real world of scientific research.
Each July, the Eric Pitman Workshop in Computational Science offers a small group of western New York students the chance to study in one of the leading academic supercomputing sites in the U.S., the Center for Computational Research, which is located on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus in the New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences. Tom Furlani, director of CCR, says, "The workshop is one of a few in the U.S. where high school students learn all the pieces that go into a modern research program in bioinformatics."
As one of 10 participants admitted to the 2009 workshop, Pegado recognized the significance of the opportunity, working with the U2 supercomputer (one of the nation's fastest computers), which is in demand by corporations nationwide who reserve computing time a year in advance, and then queue-up their projects to await their turn.
"Using real applications of bioinformatics, I was able to work in a team to create a tool now used by doctors at Roswell Park. Knowing my work helped produce something of value to others, that could even improve quality of life through more effective treatment planning, was a rewarding experience and has had a deep impact on me," the Wheatfield resident said.
Pegado also sought opportunities for the academic year. With experience in bioinformatics, knowing how to use computer science to sort data relating to biological problems, he was able to find a researcher willing to take on a high school assistant. After meeting with his research mentor and submitting an independent study proposal to his school's Academic Review Committee, the Nichols School senior was accepted into the Nichols Research Scholar program, which supports student participation in research programs with area scientists.
Under the mentorship of Dr. Matthew Disney, a principal investigator at SUNY Buffalo, Pegado became involved in research seeking to form a drug, which can fight against RNA-mediated diseases such as Sickle cell disease, Huntington's disease and certain forms of breast cancer. There is currently no cure for these diseases. To conclude his year of Research Scholar Independent Study, Pegado recently presented his work and described the Disney group's research process of finding toxic RNA structures that cause disease, entering the sequences into a database, and searching for structures that will allow binding with small molecules. The end goal is to be able to synthesize drugs that will attach to RNA folds.
In assisting with Disney's research on UB's north campus, he learned how to work with the RNA database and performed laboratory research. Pegado credits the preparation he received at Nichols School with equipping him to offer skillful and efficient work in the Disney lab and calls his experience this year as a Nichols Research Scholar "invaluable."
While facing the challenges of preparing for a science-related career path, Pegado will keep his sight set on his goal, "to develop my strengths in order to find new ways to help others."