Last summer, Greensburg Central Catholic junior Franco Alvarez spent eight weeks engaged in cutting edge cancer research through the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center Academy, an award-winning science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) program that helps prepare students for successful careers in science and medicine. Franco explained that “few people have the chance to participate in ‘real’ research until after completion of an undergraduate degree, so having this experience while still in high school has opened my sights to where I can go in the future!”
Franco’s research investigated the effects of methionine on osteoblast differentiation. Studies have shown that there are positive effects of fasting on chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and cancer. However, fasting can also lead to negative health consequences, such as bone loss. A recent study investigating the effects of fasting on bone health in healthy adults revealed that the circulating levels of bone formation marker P1NP significantly decreased as fasting progressed. Interestingly, as P1NP levels decreased, methionine levels significantly increased, suggesting a potential relationship. But how methionine impacts bone formation is not fully understood. The aim of Franco’s study was to test the hypothesis that excess methionine impairs osteoblast (bone-forming cells) differentiation. Part of his research involved using the qPCR machine which measures the amount of gene expression in DNA. “I love molecular biology, so being able to see what kind of technology is used in the real world was exciting to experience!”
While most of his days were spent working in the lab with an assigned mentor, Franco was also able to tour clinical facilities, receive didactic instruction, and participate in journal clubs. He loved bonding with other high school students from across Pennsylvania and noted that what really brought them together was their “common fear that we may not be smart enough to understand anything that is happening, but the participating laboratories really do a great job presenting background information and mentoring students until we felt confident.”
GCC science teacher Mrs. Pam Cullen, mentor for students conducting scientific research, said of Franco, “I believe Franco has a very deep passion for learning in general but definitely a vested interest in the sciences. He is motivated, inquisitive, brilliant, and extremely hard-working—in essence, all of the qualities needed to be a successful scientist!” We are proud to claim Franco as one of our students. This school year, Franco will compete for scholarships and prizes by presenting his research at both the Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Science Meet and the Pittsburgh Regional Science and Engineering Fair.