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Continued: Edina, Breck students vie for Intel prize

  • Article by: NICOLE TOMMERDAHL , Star Tribune
  • Last update: February 10, 2009 - 5:13 PM

Local high school seniors Michael Cherkassky and Stephen Trusheim will soon be extending their science careers far beyond the classroom as two of 40 finalists in the national Intel Science Talent Search competition.

Cherkassky, 17, of Edina attends Edina High School, and Trusheim, 18, of Chaska attends Breck School in Golden Valley. Both created complex computer programs that address problems in the medical field. They are the only finalists from Minnesota.

The Intel competition, which announced its slate of finalists late last month, will bring all the finalists to Washington, D.C., March 5-8. While in the capital, they will be able to meet prominent politicians, including Minnesota's congressional representatives and senators, and possibly President Obama.

The two young scientists already are guaranteed a laptop and $6,000 in scholarships, and they will be competing for a $100,000 prize. The pair knew each other before this competition, having met at last year's state science fair.

Cherkassky began entering the annual Twin Cities Regional Science Fair as a sophomore, and he has progressed steadily since then. Trusheim's parents are neurologists, and his involvement in science fairs and his school's advanced science research program has opened him up to work at the local medical technology firm Access Genetics.

"My parents definitely inspired me, but the teachers and the mentors that I've had have really gotten me to where I am," Trusheim said.

Identifying MRSA risks

Trusheim's project centers on the deadly Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus disease, better known as MRSA. MRSA is a type of bacterial infection that is easily spread and resistant to antibiotics. It is particularly deadly in hospitals, which it enters through infected patients who may not exhibit symptoms and where it has the potential to kill other patients who become infected with it, Trusheim said.

Because MRSA testing is a costly procedure, only about a quarter of U.S. hospitals test patients for it, Trusheim said. He created a computer program that would allow hospitals to identify patients most likely to have contracted MRSA so they can be tested, saving hospitals about a quarter of total testing costs.

"It's a new method that will hopefully encourage more hospitals in the United States to watch for this disease," he said.

The project began last summer at Access Genetics, where he worked previously as part of his school's advanced science research program.

Company president and founder Ron McGlennen said Trusheim's work embodies the process of discovery among young thinkers, using abstract pieces of information and putting them together to make an impact on a global level.

"Things move faster nowadays," McGlennen said. "Stephen is the kind of young, innovative and intelligent mind that can adapt to that sort of collaborative... approach toward scientific discovery."

Breck science department head Lois Fruen, Trusheim's instructor in the advanced science research program, said Trusheim is well-rounded and helps teach younger students as one of the program's captains.

"Stephen is really the premier leader of the class," Fruen said. "He's not just a scientist, but he's a really cool kid."

Trusheim, who has been accepted at Stanford, said he's looking forward to catching up with friends during the Intel competition, and isn't worried about the final outcome.

"I don't need to have a rivalry with anyone," he said. "I know that what I did was cool and I know that what [Cherkassky] did was 10 times as cool. Whatever comes on top of that is extra."

Reducing rate of misdiagnosis

Cherkassky also has been accepted at Stanford, but he is waiting to hear back from his other two top schools -- Harvard and MIT.

His project, though entered in a different category in the competition, also delves into the medical field through computers, helping doctors diagnose heart disease and breast cancer in patients.

Modern medical techniques give doctors an overwhelming amount of data when testing patients for these diseases, Cherkassky said, and different doctors could draw different diagnoses when looking at the same sets of testing data.

Because of this, he said, about one third of patients are misdiagnosed. Cherkassky said his program would reduce the rate of misdiagnosis for the two diseases by 10 to 20 percent.

"You can't really replace doctors with these types of models," Cherkassky said. "The idea that I had in mind is that you can give them another opinion to either confirm their initial hypothesis on the diagnosis or ask them to reevaluate it."

His first experience in the Twin Cities Regional Science Fair as a sophomore in high school was a disappointment, Cherkassky said, but encouraging words from Mike Lohman, one of the fair's organizers, inspired him to keep at it.

"Science kids are a different breed of cat," Lohman said. "Once in a while you see a kid who's working really hard, and all of a sudden he just catches fire. I saw that in Mike."

Nicole Tommerdahl is a University of Minnesota journalism student on assignment for the Star Tribune.

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