A team of three students from West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North in Plainsboro, New Jersey took first place in the Protein Modeling Event at the national Science Olympiad tournament. The victory earns each student – Jasen Zhang, Jason Yang and Roger Jin – a $10,000 scholarship every year for four years to attend MSOE if they choose to apply to the university and are accepted.

MSOE’s Center for BioMolecular Modeling (CBM) founded the Science Olympiad Protein Modeling Event in 2004. The event has gained momentum and funding over the years and is now offered across the country. More than 4,000 teams took part in invitational, regional and state 2016 Science Olympiad Protein Modeling Event competitions leading up to the national tournament at University of Wisconsin-Stout May 21-22.

In the Protein Modeling Event, students must 1) prove they understand basic features of protein structure, 2) use online visualization tools to explore and manipulate protein structures, and 3) create 3-D physical models of proteins using foam-covered wire.

Students this year investigated a real-life medical mystery that could only be solved by whole-genome sequencing. California twins Alexis and Noah Beery were diagnosed with cerebral palsy as toddlers, though their symptoms weren’t entirely consistent with the disease. It wasn’t until 2010 at the age of 13 that the twins received a more precise explanation for their symptoms. Whole-genome sequencing at the Baylor College of Medicine revealed that the twins carry mutations in a gene called SPR, which encodes the enzyme sepiapterin reductase. Sepiapterin reductase enables the synthesis of the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin and noradrenalin. The twins are now on treatment regimens that directly address the genetic mutations.

The Beerys’ journey inspired the theme of this year’s Science Olympiad Protein Modeling Event. CBM staff developed instructional materials including 3-D printed models and a bioinformatics strip to help students better understand the molecular world and the rapidly-developing field of genomics and personalized medicine. Event participants modeled different proteins related to the Beery twins’ diagnosis for each competition (regional, state and national), and demonstrated an understanding of the structures.

The 2016 Science Olympiad Protein Modeling Event was a formal collaboration between the MSOE Center for BioMolecular Modeling and the Protein Data Bank at Rutgers University. The event was supported by a Science Education Partnership Award and a Science Education Drug Abuse Partnership Award, both grants from the National Institutes of Health. A generous donation from Vertex Pharmaceuticals covered the cost of the onsite build materials. 3D Molecular Designs provided materials for this event and handled the packaging and distribution of kits to teams and tournament directors.