Student's Childhood Allergies Inspire Award-Winning Research

When Jake Lee ’21 was a child, severe allergies made everyday life a challenge. “I was practically living in the hospital,” he says. To identify the triggers, he went through multiple rounds of allergy testing that “were absolutely horrible. Once I was done with a round, either I was exhausted or had rashes or hives on my back.”

Painful as it was, this experience inspired advanced research that now is winning Jake awards. Earlier this month, he was named the grand-prize winner in the Northern Virginia Regional Science and Engineering Fair, qualifying him for the state’s competition. He also was selected as a finalist in the International Science and Engineering Fair. His topic: how to use human cells to create artificial skin that would eliminate the need for the kind of testing he underwent.

This is the first year that EHS students have entered the regional fair, and Jake was one of three students to come away with honors. Susan Wang ’22 finished second in the mathematics and computer science category and garnered several first place certificates of achievements, including “outstanding engineer award” from the Baltimore-Washington chapter of the Society of Women Engineers. Her research focused on using deep learning models, a machine-learning approach, to improve sleep studies. Charles Zheng ’22 earned second place in the biochemistry category along with a first place certificate of achievement from the Washington chapter of the American Society of Engineers. Charles used machine learning to study gene differences between a carcinoma tumor and normal tissue.

Jake’s paper for the regional fair notes the failings of current allergy testing, which typically relies on applying possible allergens to a patient’s skin and then monitoring the skin for welts and other reactions. External factors — including age, season, environment, skin condition, and the current medications — can affect the reaction, it notes.

For his research, Jake cultivated human epidermal cells on top of artificial collagen film, creating an artificial skin. The research team that Lee was part of then exposed the artificial skin to peanuts and peach fuzz, common allergens. The results showed a reaction similar to a control method and suggested that artificial skin could serve as a stand-in for real skin in allergy testing.

Kim Olsen describes Jake as “a tremendous student” who excels in many facets of Episcopal’s science curriculum. A critical member of the School’s robotics team, he also served this year as co-captain of the Science Olympiad competition squad. “In presenting his independent research project, Jake demonstrates how he has applied his analytical talents to an important real-life problem,” Olsen says. “I think the applicability of his work really resonated with the judges.”