Stopping the Spoiling

Sein Lee, a Mt. Lebanon High School senior, spent part of her summer in a highly selective program at Purdue University, the Summer Science Program. She says the experience strenghtened her ambition to become a research scientist.

We all know about food waste—the enormous amount of perfectly edible food that ends up in trash cans for one reason or another. But a significant amount of food never even makes it to the market.

The International Journal of Food Microbiology says about a quarter of the world’s food supply is lost because of spoilage. Mt. Lebanon High School senior Sein Lee spent her summer at Purdue University working on a way to cut that number down.

Lee participated in The Summer Science Program (SSP), co-sponsored by the California Institute of Technology and Harvey Mudd College. She was one of 36 students selected from a pool of more than 1,300 applicants for the chemistry/biology portion of the program.

The students were tasked with designing a molecule that could be used to kill off the fungi and prevent crops from dying. Lee was part of a three-person team that focused on finding ways to inhibit an enzyme—a protein that helps speed up chemical reactions in organisms—found in one species of fungus, Aspergillus flavus.

From a range of seven potential molecules, Lee’s team selected the one that was most successful. “Given seven potential molecule candidates from a database, we narrowed it down to the molecule that was best at inhibiting the enzyme, and then used a software program called Molecular Operating Environment to run simulations on the molecule and find ways to improve it,” she says.

Lee says the molecule the team designed is now slated for several years of rigorous testing to determine if it will be part of a fungicide that can be used to retard food spoilage.

“But the idea that I had co-authored a formal report and contributed something to solve a global problem, even at a tiny molecular level, is something that truly changed me as a person,” says Lee.  “I’ve always had a strong passion for research, particularly in biology, and my time at SSP absolutely confirmed and strengthened it.”

Lee was also selected for the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for Science and the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center Academy, but she chose the Summer Science Program “because of the personal connections and friendships. We were a wonderfully eclectic bunch of musicians, athletes, writers, entrepreneurs, and artists, all united by our love of science.”

Lee places a lot of credit on her Mt. Lebanon High School teachers. “The STEM knowledge that my teachers taught me, especially biology and organic chemistry, as well as the writing and analytical skills I learned in the humanities department, created a strong foundation that carried me through SSP.”

PHOTO COURTESY Preternatural Photos