Innovators take home first place at BioTrek championship

11th graders impressed a panel of experts with their knowledge of biofabrication, stem cells, and pluripoint cells in their presentation on producing airway supports for babies with tracheomalacia.

On June 6th, NEIA innovators Alex Grillo, Aaron Zhang, and Zi Sykes were chosen as the first-place team in the 2023 BioTrek Championship. This honor came from work that they did in science class through the Fall. The team developed a method to create biofabricate supports for babies born with airway malacia. The panel of six judges, including representatives from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, Therapeutics, BioFabUSA, and Rockwell Automation, commented on our students ability to address technical questions about the process, speak with knowledge and poise, and target such a meaningful topic. 

This was the culmination of this year’s BioTrek Program, a joint initiative by ARMI (Advanced Regenerative Medical Institute) and BioFabUSA. The NEIA and BioTrek partnership started in October and ran for five weeks during science class time. Throughout the program, NEIA students learned to identify issues that could be solved using bio-manufacturing techniques. They delved into the biology of cell growth, tissue generation, and 3D printing formats. To bring real life meaning to the project students developed an entrepreneurial model for their chosen project which included complete financial models and advertising plans. Our partnership with this program was a perfect complement to the integrated science curriculum at NEIA. It allowed our students to dive into topics that spanned traditional science disciplines and pair that content with meaningful, cutting edge projects.  

On the day of the event, NEIA’s team (Aaron and Alex, as Zi was not able to attend) showcased their pitch, competing against seven other schools. Their five-minute presentation impressed the judges, earning them a spot among the top three groups. Transitioning from presenting to their peers and families, they faced a new challenge: delivering their pitch to industry professionals and leaders who are shaping the biofabrication field. The big finale took place at the DEKA Auditorium in Manchester, New Hampshire, where the championship round coincided with ARMI’s gathering for The Meeting in the Millyard Conference. 

During their final pitch our innovators’ knowledge and composure amazed everyone as they spoke about their idea and then gracefully addressed challenging questions related to biofabrication, stem cells, and the choices they made for each step of the manufacturing process from the judges. The judges recognized the students’ expertise and awarded NEIA’s team the first-place honor!

Tim McCauley, a science instructor at NEIA, expressed immense pride in his students’ accomplishments. “It was really gratifying knowing all of the work that this group poured into their project. The work that every student in our 11th grade did throughout this program helped to elevate Aaron and Alex through this process. They also benefited from the program that we have here at NEIA, the skills we develop in our students, and the support they get to pursue passions like this.” 

Alex Grillo couldn’t believe it when their team’s name got called. “I didn’t think we were gonna win at first… Me and Aaron turned to each other, and we were like, ‘No way, surely not, there’s no way this is happening.’ My first thought was automatically, ‘This is gonna be so great on my college resume,” she said, laughing. “The governor of New Hampshire was there. I got to meet him! It was crazy.”

Aaron Zhang confessed a similar initial shock upon winning, given that it had been seven months since the project’s completion. He and Alex were still studying their notes on the car ride to the event. Both students made sure to highlight Zi Sykes and their hard work as a big contributor to their project. 

“I think we were just more knowledgeable about our topic,” Aaron said. “So when the judges asked us questions, we were able to answer them.”

The students’ ability to handle complex questions on the fly demonstrated their understanding of the subject matter, impressing even the seasoned judges, though the triumph came with its fair share of nerve-racking moments. Alex’s hands were so sweaty, they almost dropped the clicker for the presentation slides. Nonetheless, the overall experience was a remarkable milestone in both their and Aaron’s academic journeys. 

“I texted my mom, I texted my dad, I texted my friends as soon as they read off the second-place team, and we realized we had won,” Alex Grillo said. “They were all very happy.”


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