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April 11, 2019

Student voice: How young scientists are changing the world

Regeneron student finalists gather in Washington D.C., March 2019, ahead of the awards announcement.

 

Young people are changing the world through science. Some of the 40 high school students who made it to the finals of the Regeneron Science Talent Search (STS), a program of the Society for Science & the Public, recently shared their perspectives on the importance of diversity in scientific advancement. NewsHour Extra put the following question to five of the Regeneron student finalists who received their awards last month in Washington D.C.

 

What does it mean to you personally to be part of such a diverse group of young people, many with like-minded goals in improving the world?

 

Preeti Krishnamani, Top 40 Finalist: $25,000

Charter School of Wilmington, Wilmington, Delaware

 

Fun Fact: Preeti leads the clarinet section and is a soloist with the Delaware Youth Symphony. She has two blue parakeets named Lucky and Fluffy.

 

Project Description: Preeti studied whether adding plant-based silicon materials to the soil in rice paddies could reduce arsenic contamination in rice plants by altering the quantity and characteristics of iron-oxides that are known to absorb the element.

 

 

Throughout high school, I have been deeply concerned about improving the lives of refugees displaced and resettled around the world. My passion for STEM education and refugee well-being led me to create a refugee mentorship initiative, through which I have touched the lives of refugee children in my community and been touched by their brave, stories of fleeing persecution in their homeland. These experiences made me curious about how others are enhancing and shedding light on refugee migration.

 

At Regeneron STS Finals Week, I met Vincent Huang, a young mathematician and fellow finalist who mathematically modeled refugee migration in war-torn regions. I was instantly drawn to his project, since I have learned of the struggles that refugees in my own community have faced. Yet, I became inspired by his different computational approach to understanding the same humanitarian cause that I worked to tackle. Exchanging our diverse experiences through endless conversation, Vincent and I challenged each other to look at refugee crises through both the scientific and social change lenses.

 


“I am proud to be woven into a tapestry of leaders who wield their knowledge and experiences to improve the world around them.”


 

Being surrounded by the STS finalists has empowered me to develop my own eclectic passions into a vision for a better world. In the future, I am excited to collaborate with STS alumni to address complex problems from all possible angles of science and social good. Most importantly, I am proud to be woven into a tapestry of leaders who wield their knowledge and experiences to improve the world around them.”

 

Ahmad Perez, Top 40 finalist: $25,000

Brentwood High School, Brentwood, New York

 

Fun Fact: Ahmad serves as deputy group commander of his school’s Air Force Junior ROTC program. He is also president the Research Club and organizer of the yearbook. Ahmad started 11 hydroponic units in 11 of the district’s elementary schools as part of his efforts to get students interested in science and research at an early age. He also serves as a science buddy.

 

Project Description: Ahmad investigated strategies for salt marsh restoration. Salt marsh loss is occurring globally at an alarming rate due to increased erosion, rising sea levels and fertilizer-contaminated runoff.

 

 

As someone who is from Brentwood, a community in New York that has unfortunately been afflicted by gang-violence and has witnessed the death of multiple students throughout the years, I recall specific moments where many students would fear even attending school because of their safety. As a gay student in a Moroccan and Puerto Rican household, I at times didn’t feel safe in Brentwood. However, I refused to let these circumstances define me or drive the narrative behind my beautifully diverse community. In my research, I pursued a relatively cheap and effective method to restore crucial coastal marshes that protect against devastating storms.

 


“I challenged myself to show everyone, specifically young immigrant children…that anything is possible with determination and perseverance.”


 

My research also showed that these necessary ecosystems are eroding at significant rates due to man-made inputs of nitrogen and rising sea-levels. I challenged myself to show everyone, specifically young immigrant children within the Brentwood school district who doubt their abilities, that anything is possible with determination and perseverance. Brentwood has never had a finalist in this competition, and the last top 300 scholar was seven years ago. Like all Regeneron STS finalists, we refused to allow our circumstances to define our success in life, utilizing scientific research as a powerful outlet to voice our concerns with the issues of the world. I am honored to be a part of such an amazing group of individuals.

 

Rachel Seevers, Eighth Place: $60,000

Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, Lexington, Kentucky

 

Fun Fact: Rachel’s fascination with two old pin ball machines in her basement, “crafted with such detail they withstood decades of tilts and hits from frustrated players,” led to her love of restoring them with her dad. She is also a Girl Scout.

 

Project Description: Rachel developed a Virtual Winglet for aircraft that injects high-speed air at the leading edge of the underside of the wing’s tip to improve the plane’s stability and efficiency.

 

 

Four minutes and fifteen seconds is really all the time you get with each judge—staring them down and trying not to look at the notes they scribble down as you attempt to answer impossible questions. But of all the abstract, practically unanswerable, questions they could have asked- the best was the one I knew the answer to. I didn’t even have to think about it because the answer was a feeling I held deep within myself.

 

“Why do we need women in STEM?”

 

And the one thought I had when asked such a vital question that targeted my core beliefs and personal passions was: “How do you put into words something you care so much about?”

 

But the words flowed out of me as if they were already there; they just needed to be spoken.

 


“How do you put into words something you care so much about?”


 

Regeneron STS is the answer to that question. It is the proof to the math theorem proposed. It is the evidence in the lab experiment. It is the pinnacle of what science collaboration can lead to. With so many different projects and people, you’d think we’d have nothing in common, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. With three aerospace projects, each of us brought our unique perspectives to a broad field and critiqued each other’s projects in a constructive way that could lead to our next breakthrough.

 

Science is collaborative. Innovation is collaborative. Ideas are collaborative.

 

“So we need women in STEM for diversity of thought?” The judge summed up.

 

Exactly. Next question.

 

Samuel Weissman, Second Place: $175,000

Harriton High School of Lower Merion, Rosemont, Pennsylvania

 

Fun Fact: Sam plays saxophone in his high school jazz band. His love of jazz came from his grandfather, who learned to play sax at the age of 65.

 

Project Description: Sam studied the genetic makeup of HIV-infected immune cells to better understand “reservoirs” of treatment-resistant cells that remain in the patient’s body even after years of treatment. To learn more about Samuel’s project, watch the video here.

 

It was a life-changing experience to be among a group of people with such diverse backgrounds at the Regeneron Science Talent Search. As we got to know each other over the course of a week in Washington, D.C., it became clear that regardless of our backgrounds, we were united by a passion for science and math. And not just some abstract passion. Every single one of us 40 finalists seemed fascinated by the boundaries of human knowledge. At times, cultural diversity inspired creativity. Projects were carried out in universities, at high schools, in basements and garages; the variety in contexts and mentors led to novel approaches to problems.

 


“It became clear that regardless of our backgrounds, we were united by a passion for science and math.”


 

My work to understand HIV persistence was carried out in a university lab with a passionate mentor, Una O’Doherty. Other young scientists studied chemotherapy resistance at school and rockets in their backyard. Sharing a common passion for scientific approach from a wide range of perspectives also made for great discussions. For instance, Sunday night dinner was accompanied by a conversation switching between life in rural India, tolerance for hot peppers and emergency medical procedures. Late nights were filled with accented discussions of summers riding wooden boats in Tulsa, Oklahoma, comparisons of our hometown climates, and a demonstration of traditional dances. Throughout the week, diversity fueled innovation and cemented friendship and respect between finalists.

 

Maddie Yang, Fourth Place: $100,000

Detroit Country Day School, Beverly Hills, Michigan

 

Fun Fact: Maddie is an accomplished violinist and pianist and was Concert Festival International Grand Prix Solo Winner at Carnegie Hall in 2017 and 2018.

 

Project Description: Maddie searched for a universal flu vaccine that may offer greater protection and shorter production timeframes than current methods that use eggs from chickens.

 

 

From bonding with the amazing like-minded high school researchers to interacting with world-renowned scientists and members of the public, my experience with STS has been truly life-changing and inspiring. Through the emotionally wrought process of judging and exciting exploration of the monuments and historical artwork of Washington D.C., I was able to appreciate the company of the other 39 finalists, not just as fellow researchers and innovators, but as friends.

 


“The shared appreciation and passion in research but also our will to impact the future of humanity unites us.”


 

The fact that we are from a variety of backgrounds makes the experience all the more impactful. The bond between the finalists of the STS 2019 ultimately shows that science, technology, communication, and most importantly, friendship and admiration, span across ethnicities, nationalities and socioeconomic backgrounds. The shared appreciation and passion in research but also our will to impact the future of humanity unites us.

 

 

Share your voice! If you think you have a good idea for an opinion piece, consider sending a pitch to NewsHour Extra’s Student Voice blog. The blog is full of powerful, original pieces by students. Write Vic Pasquantonio at vpasquantonio@newshour.org.

 

Sign up for short education highlights from the PBS NewsHour here.

 

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