George Mason Faculty Support Aspiring High School Scientist

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Ron Nachum, Student at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Helps Fight Alzheimer’s Disease with Support from Mason Faculty.

As teachers and mentors, George Mason University faculty help nurture some of the brightest scientific minds. In addition to mentoring college students, Mason faculty have consistently and persistently offered their expertise and academic support to our local K-12 schools and their students with tours, summer internships, presentations and mentorship.

Ron Nachum
Ron Nachum, Student at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology Science and Engineering, Helps Fight Alzheimer’s Disease and Wins Local Science Fair.

This year, during the pandemic, faculty have designed and implemented virtual approaches to many of these historical commitments. One such is the effort to support a very gifted junior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Ron Nachum. As a sophomore, Nachum first contacted Zoran Duric, associate professor in the Computer Science (CS) Department, Volgenau School seeking an introduction into research and a faculty mentor to supervise his project for the annual Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology Science and Engineering Fair. Duric connected with CS PhD candidate, Kyle Jackson and long time collaborator Professor Lynn Gerber in the College of Health and Human Services (CHHS) to form Nachum’s transdisciplinary mentorship team.

Following the successful submission and presentation of an abstract at IEEE’s Engineering in Medicine and Biology Conference in July, 2020, Nachum wanted to expand on his growing experience working with the mentorship team to take on new challenges. After losing his grandfather to a difficult battle with Alzheimer’s Disease (AD), Nachum set out to work on a project close to his heart, with the goal of developing an accessible system for assessment of neurodegenerative diseases (NDs). His idea was to apply computer vision to identify changes and deterioration in fine motor movements seen in neurodegenerative diseases (such as Parkinson’s Disease and AD). After a literature review and Zoom sessions with the mentorship team, the framework for ‘PANDwriting’ was outlined: a system which requires just one smartphone camera for kinematic analysis of handwriting movements with computer vision, from which collected data would be used for classification with machine learning.

This solution was shown to be accurate, quantitative, easily administered, and inexpensive (requiring just a phone or camera). If shown to be valid in further clinical testing, PANDwriting could provide a very useful tool to identify abnormalities in fine motor movements in an accessible manner, serving both as an early warning system for disease onset and as a widely-available diagnostic tool. With the existing diagnostic process for NDs being expensive, long, and complex – around 50% of patients with NDs are not diagnosed in their lifetime – this accessible system could reduce delays in the treatment process and reliance on costly MRI imaging, improving treatment outcomes. Recently, in presenting his work, “PANDwriting: An Accessible Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Novel Diagnostic Framework Using Vision-Based Handwriting Kinematic Analysis and Machine Learning”, Nachum won first place in Translational Medical Sciences (TMED) category at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology Science and Engineering Fair. He then went on to win the grand prize at the Fairfax County Science and Engineering Fair, which qualified him for the Virginia State Science and Engineering Fair on April 10 where he earned an impressive second place. Nachum will now go on to compete in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in May.

Another example of how Mason’s faculty expertise helps nurture local talent and develop the next generation of scientists.