Ardeishar awarded $150,000 for novel math project; Saxena earns $40,000 prize for system to screen blood diseases
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, March 14, 2019 – Two Indian-American students are among the top winners of the Regeneron Science Talent Search, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors drawing exceptionally qualified entrants from across the country.
Adam Ardeishar, 17, of McLean, Virginia, secured third place in the rigorous competition and was awarded $150,000 for combining a mathematical dilemma known as the ‘coupon collector problem’ with extreme value theory to determine the likelihood of a maximal event.
“The indicator is important for calculating a 1000-year flood or where you have a lot of market unrest”, he told us adding, it can also be applied to an engineering process. “If you are a plant manager and you want to build a schedule, you can know the average amount of time it takes to do it”, he said.
Currently a student at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a STEM magnet in Alexandria, Adam is a math whiz! He earned a silver medal in the 2018 International Mathematical Olympiad in which pre-college students tackle some of the hardest math problems. He was one of only six students selected to represent the US and helped his team to win the event.
In his spare time, Adam loves creating beautiful origami pieces as he finds the process of repeatedly folding paper “rhythmic, meditative and relaxing”.
Eshika Saxena of Bellevue, Washington, was awarded $40,000 for developing a system to screen for blood-related diseases using a smartphone. The gifted student, exemplifying girl power, has been accepted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she plans to major in electrical engineering and computer science.
About her project, Eshika, 17, currently a student at Interlake High School, told us, “I turn the smartphone camera into a microscope so you can capture images of blood cells using just your smartphone camera and my attachment”.
She then developed software to segment each individual blood cell from the images and classified the cells based on different diseases that they might indicate.
“I specifically focused on sickle cell disease which is characterized by a crescent-shaped cell and I was able to distinguish between sickle cells and healthy cells with a 95.6 percent accuracy”, she said. “Typically, blood-related diseases are screened by doctors who look at blood under a microscope and are normally looking for abnormalities”.
Eshika’s innovation is a time and cost effective method. “Having this software do the analysis and having the smartphone microscope allows it to be used very fast”, she explained adding “it gives more people access to screenings”.
Eshika hopes to pursue more research in Artificial Intelligence and applications relating to healthcare. “I would like to get a PhD degree and perhaps become a professor because I really enjoy teaching and doing research”, she says.
The Indian-origin teens were among 40 finalists who over the course of a week, March 7 to 13, presented their innovative research projects to eminent judges, competed for more than $1.8 million in awards, interacted with renowned scientists, met with members of Congress, and displayed their work to the public at the National Geographic Society headquarters. Winners of the top ten awards, ranging from $40,000 up to $250,000 dollars, were announced Tuesday evening at a formal awards gala held in the historic National Building Museum.
The top award was conferred on Ana Humphrey, 18, of Alexandria, for her mathematical model to determine the possible locations of exoplanets which are outside the solar system and may have been missed by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope. In second place was Samuel Weissman, 17, of Rosemont, Pennsylvania, awarded $175,000 for his project which expands understanding of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and may impact future treatment approaches.
Delivering the keynote address at the gala, Indian-American physician and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee noted, “We’re here not to just award prizes, but responsibilities”. A cancer expert, his message to the finalists was: “Let’s get to work because there’s a lot to do”.
Congratulating the top winners, Dr. George Yancopoulos, President and Chief Scientific Officer of Regeneron, professed they “embody true scientific and mathematical ingenuity”.
“We are always inspired by the work of these talented young people, and this year’s winners have impressed us with their curiosity and desire to improve the world around them. My experience as a winner in the Science Talent Search changed my life and was an important early step on my path to a life devoted to using the power of science to do good. I hope it has the same impact on these young scientists since now more than ever, we need brilliant minds like theirs to find solutions to our world’s most pressing challenges”, he said.
In the current edition of the Regeneron Science Talent Search (Regeneron STS), the finalists hailed from 34 schools in 17 states. Earlier this year, 300 scholars were selected from a pool of nearly 2,000 applicants, and each semi-finalist was awarded $2,000 in addition to their school receiving a grant of an equivalent amount. Of these ‘Top Scholars’, 40 finalists who receive a minimum award of $25,000 were announced January 23 of which 18, over 40 percent, were Indian-American students. These are mind-boggling figures given that Indian-Americans comprise about one percent of the US population.
“South Asian Americans have done incredibly well”, Maya Ajmera, President and CEO of Society for Science and the Public, told us. “You see this flow of immigrants over time”.
Why is that?, we asked.
Ajmera, “the daughter of Indian immigrants to this country” and an alumni of the STS, responded, “Many of the high-tech companies that have been founded in this country are by immigrants or the children of immigrants. There is some form of co-relation. I don’t know whether it is grit and hard work or drive and a very strong emphasis on education”, she said.
The finalists, a diverse lot, exemplify and embody the best and brightest in America! They have attempted to tackle some of the world’s most compelling issues through their scientific projects.
Ruhi Sayana, 17, of Cupertino, California, has combined biochemistry with a computational approach to treat childhood leukemia.
“My project was essentially focused on finding a targeted treatment for a high-risk form of pediatric cancer which is a terrible disease affecting newborns up to 10-year-old children”, she informed us.
A senior at The Harker School in San Jose, Ruhi identified a set of proteins that were over expressed in this cancer. By using a drug that targeted those proteins, she was able to find a treatment “that works at very low, clinically-safe concentrations”, she said.
Essentially, Ruhi identified a drug that was already existing, but wasn’t involved in treating childhood cancer and “found out that it was very effective”.
Noting that this cancer is very dangerous, with a low survival rate, she said, “I wanted to see what was causing that particular aggressiveness of the cancer. There is a set of proteins that are altered in this cancer and I wanted to see if those proteins were responsible for making this cancer so aggressive and so dangerous”. The science whiz who hopes to study molecular biology in college used a machine-learning model to map the relationship.
She is clear about her career choice. “I want to be a physician scientist”, she reveals so she can conduct research and meet patients.
The enterprising teen has founded Girls in STEM at a local, underserved middle school, igniting a passion and enthusiasm for science among girls who “often feel silenced in classes filled with loud boys”.
Apart from her passion for science, Ruhi is a classically trained singer. She is president of her school’s research club which is one of the largest student organizations on campus.
For Preeti Sai Krishnamani, 17, of Hockessin, Delaware, the essential goal was to combat arsenic contamination in rice.
“The way I am trying to do that is by enhancing soil minerals that can bind up arsenic and make it inaccessible to rice plants”, she informed us. Her solution is silicon amendments – rice husk and rice husk ash — which are waste products of rice production and can be recycled into paddies to eventually combat arsenic contamination in the crop.
Currently a senior at the Charter School of Wilmington, Preeti mentioned that the burnt material, the rice husk ash, had more potential to combat arsenic contamination in rice. “It showed better results for increasing these iron-oxide minerals that can bind up the arsenic and prevent it from entering the plant through water”, she said.
Arsenic easily contaminates ground water in countries like India, China and Bangladesh, among others. In the US, contamination occurs more from industrial activity and the use of pesticides.
Regarding actual testing, Preeti recalled that in June through August 2017 when she was involved in the research part of the project, she spent her mornings outdoors tending to the rice paddies and collecting samples. “That totally enriched my perspective about the problem”, she said. “I think if I was just inside a lab doing chemical extractions, I would have lost my awareness of the implementation that is so important to this project”. Someday, she hopes to be an entrepreneur in the space of agricultural technology.
Amol Preet Singh, 18, of San Jose, California, has developed a new software for conducting accurate and fast diagnosis of diseases by pathologists.
“Currently, in pathology there is a major barrier in terms of transforming into the digital space”, Amol told us. “This barrier is imposed by optical imaging systems and optical microscopes that are only able to focus on a two-dimensional plane of three-dimensional cellular information. This three-dimensional cellular information is very important for conducting accurate and fast diagnosis”, he said.
The brilliant teen, a student of Lynbrook High School, has created a static representation, a computational pipeline, that contains all vital data information of cells.
Amol who will soon be heading to college is interested in studying computational biology. Further down the road, he would like to pursue a MD-PhD dual degree so he can work part-time within a clinical setting as well as conduct research.
To address mental health and substance abuse in the local Sikh community, Amol has built a program to provide mental health seminars and psychological services at no charge.
He is a volunteer at the ‘langar’ hall in the San Jose Gurdwara which has one of the largest community kitchens in the bay area serving some 500 people. He also helps prepare food at the Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen.
The other Indian-origin finalists of the 2019 Regeneron STS were: Ayush Alag, 17, The Harker School, San Jose, CA; Anjali Chadha, 16, duPont Manual Magnet High School, Louisville, KY; Navami Jain, 17, North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, Durham, NC; Aayush Karan, 17, University School of Milwaukee, Milwaukee, WI; Ananya Karthik, 17, St. Francis High School, Mountain View, CA; Chirag Kumar, 17, Horace Greely High School, Chappaqua, NY; Varun Kumar, 17, Bergen County Academies, Hackensack, NJ; Eish Maheshwari, 16, Herricks High School, New Hyde Park, NY; Sai Mamidala, 17, Garnet Valley High School, Glen Mills, PA; Natasha Maniar, 17, The Harker School, San Jose; Ronak Roy, 17, Canyon Crest Academy, San Diego, CA; Aditi Singh, 17, Horace Greeley High School, Chappaqua, NY; and Madhav Subramanian, 18, Jericho Senior High School, Jericho, NY.
The Science Talent Search, a program of Society for Science & the Public since 1942, was formerly known as the Intel Science Talent Search (1998-2016) and earlier was supported by Westinghouse (1942-1997). Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Inc., a leading biotechnology company headquartered in New York, took on the STS from 2017 and ever since has been giving over $3 million in awards, annually. Founded by STS alumni, the company has committed $100 million in funding over the next decade.
Throughout its 77 years, the criteria for selection in the STS has remained the same: students are chosen from across the nation for their scientific prowess and overall potential to become future leaders of the scientific community.
Alumni of the program have made extraordinary contributions to science and are recipients of over 100 of the world’s most prized honors in science and maths including 13 Nobel Prizes, 13 National Medals of Science, 5 Breakthrough Prizes, 19 MacArthur Foundation Fellowships, and 2 Field Medals.
“The Regeneron STS is a wonderful platform for us to relay the scientific innovation that is happening to the public because the eventual goal of all science I believe is to help other people find truth and understand how we can live a better life”, Preeti said.