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Germantown Academy Senior Named a Top 300 Scholar

The Society for Science announced that Germantown Academy senior Sarah Rojas '21 has been named a Top 300 Scholar in the 80th Regeneron Science Talent Search for her science research project, Inducing Dysbiosis in Brown Planaria with Single Strain Probiotics Clostridium butyricum, E.coli Nissle 1917, and Lactobacillus acidophilus.

For this extraordinary accomplishment, Rojas is the recipient of a $2,000 prize and GA will also receive $2,000 to use toward STEM-related activities.

“When I first found out about the news, I was definitely very honored that Regeneron saw value in my research,” said Rojas. "This honor also means a lot to me because it shows that research in this very new scientific field of studying the gut microbiome of humans and other organisms is important to the scientific community. I’m really glad that my research can continue to bring awareness to the study of the gut microbiome, which I see as a major player in the systemic health of an organism.”

Rojas could also be named as one of 40 finalists, who each receive $25,000 and participate in the final virtual competition in March. The top 40 finalists will be announced on Thursday, January 21. The top prize for the most promising emerging STEM leader in the United States is $250,000.

Rojas’ award is based on the science research project she completed during her junior year.

“I induced dysbiosis in the microbiome of planaria test organisms by feeding them different single-strain probiotics,” said Rojas. “The goal of this project was to find a natural insecticide that controls invasive species by disabling their gut microbiomes.”

Rojas’ research was intense and it took place from October 2019 through March 2020.

“From October to December of 2019, I designed my experiment, investing hours researching the gut microbiome of my planaria test organism, available probiotics, and approved insecticide from the EPA’s website,” said Rojas. “In December, I performed my experiment, spending two hours every day adding fresh dilutions of each probiotic solution to the planaria petri dishes. In January and February, I plated and gram stained almost every day for two to three hours. In February and March, I developed a research paper, science fair board, and PowerPoint presentation to virtually compete at multiple science fairs.”

Rojas was drawn to her work after completing a 30-day vegan diet for her 10th grade science research project to test the changes in her gut microbiome.

“I found that my gut microbiome increased by 123 species simply by altering my diet,” said Rojas. “I became fascinated by how a simple diet change could alter the composition of humans’ microbiomes and how a healthy gut microbimoe had a very diverse amount of bacteria. For this science fair experiment, I used my knowledge of microbiology to approach a problem in my community: the introduction of the invasive species, Spotted Lantern Flies. 

“From my 10th grade science fair, I knew that a varied diet led to a diverse, healthy gut microbiome. On the other hand, with a very limited diet, I hypothesized that the gut microbiome would become very unhealthy and compromise the organism. This lack of diversity in the gut microbiome is known as dysbiosis. Unlike a healthy, diverse microbiome with many species of bacteria, the overwhelming of the gut with one or two types of bacteria (causing dysbiosis) worsens the quality of life and, in some cases, shortens the lifespan of an organism. Using this application of microbiology, I hypothesized that if planaria test organisms are exposed to a diet of single strain probiotics, Clostridium butyricum, E. coli Nissle 1917, or Lactobacillus acidophilus, then their microbiome will undergo dysbiosis and therefore their life cycle will be shortened, replacing the need for harmful insecticides.”

Rojas is the current President of the Student Government Association. She also served as a captain of the girls' varsity tennis team and has helped run the LatinX affinity group. She has also been involved in the Community Service Organization, specifically the Book Nook initiative, which brings tiny libraries filled with children’s books to community parks.

The Regeneron Science Talent Search (STS) is the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science and mathematics competition for high school seniors. Regeneron STS recognizes and empowers the most promising young scientists in the United States who are creating the ideas and solutions that solve our most urgent challenges. Scholars were selected from 1,760 applications received from 611 high schools across 45 states, Washington, DC, Puerto Rico and 10 countries. Scholars were chosen based on their exceptional research skills, commitment to academics, innovative thinking and promise as scientists.