Science hits close to home for JFK student and Regeneron Scholar


Jake Levine, of Bellmore, has a love of science that he aims squarely at some of the problems humanity faces.

The John F. Kennedy High School senior was recently named a Regeneron Talent Search Scholar. That puts Levine in the top tier of young scientists nationwide, and means he may be one of 40 students to compete in Washington, D.C., this spring.

Levine grew up in what he called a “sustainable home,” with his parents, two sisters and dog. There was a compost heap in the backyard and ingrained household rules like turning off the lights every time you leave a room. “We were always told to do the little things to try and create a bigger impact,” he said.

With the impact of global climate change becoming more apparent by the year, Levine said he plans to go into environmental and oceanic studies after graduation. “I’ve always been interested in the environment,” he said, “but as of late, current events around the world have been pushing me toward doing something about it.”

The work that earned him a slot in the country’s most prestigious pre-college science competition, however, was inspired by health issues in his own family.

“My mom and two sisters, basically, were diagnosed with celiac disease at the beginning of my junior year,” Levine said. And that’s when he shifted his focus to treatments for gluten intolerance.

The severity of symptoms can vary from person to person (see box, Page 22), but Levine’s mother, Karen, dealt with gluten-related problems for 40 years, and his sisters went undiagnosed for almost 10 years.

“It changed the way me and my family live,” Jake said. “While the cure is relatively painless, following a gluten-free diet can be really meticulous.”

He added that he is accustomed to a gluten-free diet when it comes to eating at home — “I don’t mind the food now,” he said. And when eating out, he and his father order whatever they like.

Jake’s mother and sisters were his biggest inspiration when he buckled down to conduct his study, titled, “Fasciclin 2 Expression is Positively Correlated with Gut Function Under Nutrient-Poor Conditions in Drosophila melanogaster.”

For two years he did graduate-level research on Fasciclin 2 and its implications for humans. Fasciclin 2 is a genetic glycoprotein found in insects. Drosophila melanogaster is the common fruit fly. Levine found that the insect gene can enhance the function of microvilli — structures in the intestinal tract that aid with digestion — when the fly is under celiac conditions.

Humans have an orthologue to Fasciclin 2 — that is, a similar gene — and Levine said he hoped his project might lead to an alternative treatment for celiac patients. “I hope this connection will give genetic therapists the ability to manipulate genes of humans susceptible to celiac disease,” he said, “and make their lives happier and easier.”

In the Advanced Science Research program at Kennedy, Levine is mentored by Barbi Frank. He also finds the time to play varsity volleyball, hockey and tennis. The volleyball team won the state championship last fall. He plans to attend Stanford University in the fall, and return to his research in marine biology and oceanic studies, looking for ways to preserve ocean life in the face of climate change.

Kennedy Science Chairman Robert Soel said that Levine and his fellow Kennedy Science Scholars, Whitney Sussman and Jonathan Mashal, deserved plaudits for their work.

“We congratulate them on this outstanding accomplishment,” Soel said, “and wish them best of luck in the next phase of the competition.”

Finalists in the competition were expected to be announced on Wednesday, after the Herald went to press.