Senior Alyssa Ponrartana named Regeneron Scholar for neurodevelopmental research


Photo credit: Caroline Wu

Senior Alyssa Ponrartana presents her research project at Archer’s annual Student STEM Symposium May 14, 2022. Ponrartana was named a scholar in the 82nd Regeneron Science Talent Search for her research intersecting neurodevelopment and environment.

By Greta Irvine, Editor in Chief

According to Science Department Chair Hanna Robertson, senior Alyssa Ponrartana “lives in the lab.” Currently in her second year of Honors Research in Science — now an advanced study course — Ponrartana has completed one lab-based research project and is undertaking another. 

Her commitment to research was recognized beyond the Archer community. 

Ponrartana was named a top 300 scholar in the 82nd Regeneron Science Talent Search. As written on their website, Regeneron STS is the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science and mathematics competition for high school seniors, aiming to recognize and empower promising young scientists. Ponrartana was selected among 1,949 students nationwide — an “incredible” recognition, according to Robertson. 

“It’s one thing to have your research in this tightknit community, but then, to be able to go beyond that and compare your research nationally and to be recognized for that work is pretty incredible,” she said. “I don’t think that my students need validation from outside sources. But, it’s nice…It’s just recognizing the work that our students are doing and show[ing] that we can do incredible science here with the resources that we have.”

Ponrartana began her research in the fall of 2021 in the Honors Research in Science course taught by Robertson. Wishing to combine her passion for neurodevelopmental disabilities and environment, she studied whether the environmentally ubiquitous chemical Bisphenol-A had any significant sex-specific impacts on the behaviors of Fragile X Syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disability and the leading genetic cause of autism. 

To investigate this topic, Ponrartana studied fruit flies because they can model the FXS gene. She said her findings contribute to a better understanding of the intersection between neurodevelopment and environment and provide further avenues to explore how Fragile X Syndrome differentially affects males and females. 

“I’ve always enjoyed science, so it’s been my favorite subject,” Ponrartana said. “For my research project, the inspiration came from my volunteer work with Best Buddies [and] having a lot of friends who have these neurodevelopmental disabilities. Possibly finding research that related to them and that might be able to help the community was definitely the biggest inspiration.”

Ponrartana is one of three members of the class of 2023 who took Honors Research in Science her junior year. This experience made her uniquely suited to apply for the Regeneron competition open to only high school seniors since she had original research to submit for the fall deadline. 

While first-year students developed lab skills in semester one, Ponrartana worked on the application, submitting her research paper from last year and a series of essays about the research process. 

It’s one thing to have your research in this tightknit community, but then, to be able to go beyond that and compare your research nationally and to be recognized for that work is pretty incredible.

— Science Department Chair Hanna Robertson

“She could put her energy into communicating about her work and sharing out with the broader community and being involved in the science competition world,” Robertson said, “which is, I think, an important component of — maybe not the competition part but just putting your work out there for other people to to appreciate and practicing the communication skills involved in sharing scientific research.” 

Only one prior Archer student has been named a Regeneron scholar: Leila Mirdamadi from the class of 2020. Robertson identified the characteristics that made Ponrartana a strong candidate. 

“She really did demonstrate this exceptional drive and motivation to just figure it out. I’m there to sort of support the research, but that would not have been possible without Alyssa’s drive to and just curiosity and wanting to figure it out,” she said. “Practically she was here during all of her free [periods], working with her flies. It’s exciting for me when students have that kind of passion and independent drive to want to just figure things out on their own.”

Fellow senior Zoe Epps was in honors research last year, working on her own project alongside Ponrartana. Epps had the chance to observe Ponrartana’s dedication and humorous disposition. 

“It was kind of amazing seeing Alyssa in the lab,” she said. “We spent every class lunch and FLX block in that lab working, sometimes together — because we were both using flies — and sometimes apart, but even as stressed and concentrated as we were, she never failed to make me or anyone else laugh.” 

Regeneron STS awarded each scholar $2,000, and Archer will also receive $2,000 to use toward STEM-related activities. Although Ponrartana said she is unsure what she will put the award money towards, she identified future research she wishes to pursue — some of which she has begun this year in the Scientific Research I: Advanced Study course. 

“I really like the idea of combining clinical research and bench research because, especially in the field of neurodevelopment, there’s biological characteristics that you can start treating, which is what I’m doing my project on this year,” she said. 

Ponrartana’s final research paper, proposal, poster and presentation are published on Archer’s RISE Mag website. The website also houses past research papers, video presentations, and student reflections.

Ponratana said she was unsure what this recognition means to her but acknowledged it was an “impressive” achievement.

“It really just solidifies the passion that I’ve put into the project because, throughout the project, I always personally cared about my research, but I wasn’t sure if like other people outside of Archer would. I think having that like verification was really rewarding,” Ponrartana said. “…If you have the opportunity, join honors research. It’s a very, very transformative experience academically.”