Byram Hills Student Wins Acorda Award

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Byram Hills student Jessica Occhiogrosso recently received the Acorda Scientific Excellence Award for her research project on curing degenerative disc disease. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Andrea Coan

ARMONK, N.Y. -- Byram Hills High School Student Jessica Occhiogrosso decided to work on a science project that hit very close to home.

Occhiogrosso recently received the Acorda Scientific Excellence Award for her research project on curing degenerative disc disease.

Occhiogrosso's own experience with scoliosis inspired her to study non-surgical treatments for degenerative disc disease, a disease similar to scoliosis.

In her study entitled “Inflammation alters the intervertebral disc’s response to load," Occhiogrosso examined two proteins believed to play a role in the onset of degenerative disc disease. She found that modifications to an ion channel called TRPV4 following injury and inflammation may play a role in the development of degenerative disc disease. More information on TRPV4 signaling could allow for development of non-surgical treatments.

Occhiogrosso was diagnosed with scoliosis when she was 12 and grew up wearing a back brace before having surgery.

When she joined the program, Occhiogrosso originally wanted to study conjoined twins, but found there were not enough twins to study.

"I thought about my other areas of interest and looking back at my medical history, decided to study degenerative disc disease," Occhiogrosso said.

Occhiogrosso worked with a mentor at Mt. Sinai Hospital and spent her summer in a lab shadowing graduate students who were conducting research and doing experiments and studying how proteins responded to treatment.

"It was a great experience," Occhiogrosso said. "I thought I was an expert but then I realized otherwise in the lab. I really grew close to the graduate students."

Occhiogrosso said she was frequently doing research on the computer, reading journal articles and writing research papers.

"I want to help people who have similar spinal diseases," Occhiogrosso said. 

Occhiogrosso was later treated for her scoliosis after an 11 hour surgery and her back has metal rods to prop up her spine.

"It's deep enough to not set off metal detectors," Occiogrosso said. 

Occhiogrosso said she is not sure where she wants to go to college, but wants to become a doctor. She said she was thrilled to receive the award.

"It means a lot to me to be honored by the scientific community," Occhiogrosso said. 

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