Young innovators devise scientific projects to address water contamination, energy efficiency, neurodegenerative disease, falls in the elderly
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, February 5, 2021 – In a nation wracked by the coronavirus pandemic, an unprecedented crisis that has put science and scientific pursuits up front and center, it is heartening to know that eight brilliant Indian-origin teens are among 40 finalists, some 20 percent, in the current edition of the highly acclaimed Regeneron Science Talent Search (Regeneron STS) competition. It’s a noteworthy figure when one considers that Indian-Americans as a whole comprise about one percent of the US population.
The 40 budding scientists are all set to participate in a virtual competition from March 10-17 during which they will present their innovative research projects to eminent judges, compete for more than $1.8 million in awards, interact with renowned scientists, and display their work to the public in an online event on March 14. Winners of the top ten prizes, ranging from $40,000 up to $250,000, will be announced March 17 during a live-streamed virtual awards ceremony designed to keep the finalists and their families safe in the midst of a raging virus.
The Regeneron STS is the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science and math competition for pre-college students drawing exceptionally qualified entrants from across the country and beyond. In the latest edition, finalists hail from 37 schools and one home school across 15 states.
Last month, 300 scholars were selected from a pool of 1,760 applicants from 611 high schools in 45 states, Washington, DC, Puerto Rico and ten countries. The semi-finalists were awarded $2,000 each in addition to their school receiving a grant of an equivalent amount.
Of these ‘Top Scholars’, 40 finalists who will receive a minimum award of $25,000 were then named including eight Indian-origin teens: Laalitya Acharya, 17, William Mason High School, Mason, Ohio; Akhilesh Balasingam, 17, Archbishop Mitty High School, San Jose, California; Gopal Goel, 17, Krishna Homeschool, Portland, Oregon; Vedanth Iyer, 17, Sunset High School, Portland, Oregon; Eshani Jha, 17, Lynbrook High School, San Jose, California; Anushka Sanyal, 17, Homestead High School, Cupertino, California; Alay Shah, 17, Plano West Senior High School, Plano, Texas; and Vetri Vel, 16, Bangor High School, Bangor, Maine.
The finalists have attempted to tackle some of the world’s compelling issues through their scientific projects such as creating a new way to filter toxins more effectively from wastewater, optimizing the runtime of algorithms in computing to enhance energy efficiency, identifying a potential treatment for neurodegenerative disease, and detecting falls in the elderly.
A trip to India inspired Laalitya to take action on the water gap. During the visit she discovered that many people were falling ill, including herself, from drinking contaminated water.
In a video posted by the Society for Science which administers the Regeneron STS, Laalitya talks of her creation, Nereid, a cohesive device that uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) processing to determine if there are contaminants in a sample of water.
The young innovator created a microscopic camera which consistently takes images of the water sample, using the AI processing model to ascertain if contamination is present and then transmits the findings to a local water plant for further analysis as necessary.
“This device is cost effective and can be directly applied into a water system leading it to have an extremely high longevity and global applicability”, says Laalitya who is currently working with local authorities to help get the device implemented in her hometown for initial real world testing.
Apart from her love of science and scientific research, Laalitya plays the violin and piano, and is passionate about exercising especially running, knee injuries notwithstanding.
Akhilesh was motivated by the need to develop faster and more energy efficient computers for AI. In a video released by the organizer of the competition, the teen reveals that his research focuses on optimizing a device which can simultaneously perform memory and arithmetic operations and this enables hardware that can speed up algorithms while consuming little energy.
In his spare time, Akhilesh plays the mridangam (Indian classical drum), paints, plays squash, hikes and cycles.
On its Twitter account, Sigma Xi, the international honor society for scientists and engineers, enthused, “Congratulations to six previous Sigma Xi student research competition participants for being finalists in the 2021 Regeneron Science Talent Search: Vedanth Iyer, Alay Shah, Wenjun Hou, Akhilesh Balasingam, Jessie Gan, and Laalitya Acharya”.
The Jackson Laboratory tweeted: Proud of our JAX Genomic Education/Maine Math & Science, Maine State Science Fair alumni Vetri Vel who was named a Society for Science, Regeneron STS finalist. The non-profit scientific research institute specializing in genetics, genomics and mouse models of disease, congratulated the teen “on this prestigious honor”!
Lynbrook High School Principal tweeted, “So proud of Claire Tang and Eshani Jha who were recognized as Regeneron Science Talent Search finalists! Congratulations! Lynbrook is cheering for you both in the finals”.
In a press statement, Dr. George Yancopoulos, President and Chief Scientific Officer of Regeneron, noted, “This year’s finalists represent many of our nation’s most promising young scientists. Even during a global pandemic, these students have been using their ingenuity, resourcefulness and STEM skills to work toward a better future”.
A founding scientist and Science Talent Search winner (1976), Dr. Yancopoulos credits his STS experience for helping put him on a path that led him and his team to invent several of the world’s most important medicines including antibody cocktail treatments for Ebola and Covid-19.
About the 2021 finalists, he said, “I can only hope that their STS experience helps further inspire them to take on and help solve some of the biggest challenges facing mankind, from climate change to disease and future pandemics”.
The Science Talent Search, a program of the Washington-based Society for Science 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, became the funding source 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 79 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, 6 Breakthrough Prizes, 21 MacArthur Foundation Fellowships, and 2 Field Medals.
In a press communique, Maya Ajmera, President and CEO of the Society for Science, hailed the 40 finalists noting they “are the top young scientists and engineers in the United States who will someday solve some of the world’s most vexing problems. They have persevered through a tumultuous year and we look forward to celebrating the students’ achievement in a special way”, she stated.
The research projects of the six other Indian-origin finalists are as follows:
– Gopal Goel: Discrete derivative asymptotics of the beta-Hermite Eigenvalues;
– Vedanth Iyer: First-principles characterization of a novel chromium doped Vanadyl-Oxide based cathode for higher energy and efficiency lithium-ion batteries;
– Eshani Jha: Thiol functionalized and manganese dioxide doped biochar for the removal of toxic organic and inorganic contaminants from water;
– Anushka Sanyal: Intronic RNA lariats protect against neurodegenerative disease related protein aggregation;
– Alay Shah: Identifying eye-movement patterns in neurological disorders to assess cognitive and motor function; and
– Vetri Vel: Real-time fall detection system for the elderly using thermal imaging and deep learning.