Eshani Jha awarded $150,000 for designing sustainable and affordable water purification system; Gopal Goel earns $100,000 prize for analyzing the mathematical properties of random matrices; Vetri Vel bags $80,000 for inventing a fall detection system to help the elderly; and Alay Shah takes home $70,000 for developing a diagnostic tool that tracks eye movements to identify neurological disorders
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, March 20, 2021 – Four Indian-American budding scientists are among the top winners of the Regeneron Science Talent Search (STS), the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors, drawing exceptionally qualified entrants who attempt to tackle compelling issues facing humanity through their awe-inspiring scientific projects.
The Indian-origin award recipients – Eshani Jha, 17, of San Jose, California; Gopal Goel, 17, of Portland, Oregon; Vetri Vel, 16, of Bangor, Maine; and Alay Shah, 17, of Plano, Texas — were among 40 finalists who over the course of a week, March 10 to17, presented their innovative research projects to eminent judges, competed for more than $1.8 million in awards, interacted with renowned scientists, and displayed their work to the public in an online event on Sunday afternoon. Winners of the top ten awards, ranging from $40,000 up to $250,000 were announced Wednesday evening during a live-streamed virtual awards ceremony designed to keep the finalists and their families safe in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Jha secured third place in the rigorous competition administered by the Society for Science and was awarded $150,000 for designing an accessible and affordable water purification system.
In an online chat with the press and public on Sunday, Jha recalled, “On a trip to India a few summers ago, I noticed the grotesque deformities resulting from water contamination in the slums of my home state. When I asked my relatives why so many people were thus affected, they told me that such maladies were commonplace due to limited access to water filters. Market research revealed that commercial water filters are inaccessible to those who need them most due to tradeoffs between cost and effectiveness. And thus, my journey began”, she said.
Responding to a query if her research can be used in places like Flint, Michigan, to purify drinking water, she answered in the affirmative. “The major pollutants in Flint’s water were heavy metals especially lead”, she noted. “But, my research also explores the removal of microplastics, pharmaceuticals and pesticides”, said the young innovator who plans to major in chemical engineering when she heads to college.
Currently, a senior at Lynbrook High School, Jha has been conducting research on water contamination since middle school. “So, a lot of this work is built on my previous findings”, she said. “The doping and testing of enhanced biochar was conducted over a span of almost one year”.
Goel, a student at Krishna Homeschool, secured fourth place in the competition and was awarded $100,000 for studying the mathematical properties of random matrices.
About his project, the teen explained, “The idea is that random matrices model the error in data especially from natural phenomenon”.
The homeschooler believes his math research is useful in the field of meteorology, nuclear physics and quantum field theory. “Researchers explicitly showed how the model I am studying can be used specifically for meteorological data”, he told viewers during the virtual Public Exhibition of Projects which opened on Sunday and will be on display until the end of the month.
When asked about the most important keys to success for science research, he replied, “finding opportunities” by applying to research programs, emailing professors, “and working really hard once you find these opportunities”.
Looking ahead to college, Goel plans to major in math and physics.
In sixth place was Vel who received a $80,000 award for developing a fall detection system to help the elderly. At 16, he was the youngest among the top 40 finalists in the current edition of the Regeneron STS.
At the Public Exhibition on Sunday, Vel told online viewers, “I was inspired when I heard that my grandmother had fallen in India and thankfully, my grandpa noticed and she got help. However, it made me think about older adults who may not get help for a long time after falling. When I asked, my neighbor had a story about her elderly mother falling, breaking her hip, and lying on the floor for nearly a day. This made me think about a better solution for fall detection”.
Vel focused on heat sources using thermal imaging explaining that “it preserves privacy, works in the dark, and makes it easier to see humans in the images. The system would just be wall-mounted in a room. It would continuously capture images and classify them using a trained neural network. When a few different criteria are met, the system calls for help over the internet by sending a text message for example”, he said.
When Covid-19 restrictions are lifted, the promising young scientist hopes to test the system for a longer duration in a nursing home to find out how reliable it is, and to make refinements if any issues crop up.
Referring to residents in long-term care facilities, Vel said, “I think it (his system) would improve their quality of life because if they fell at any time during the day or at night, they would get help immediately. This is also because nursing homes tend to be short-staffed, so each individual only gets checked on at scheduled points during the day which leaves lots of gaps”.
He added, “Applying engineering and machine learning techniques is really satisfying for me because while I love learning theoretical concepts, I also want to be able to use them to accomplish something and improve people’s lives”.
Vel believes the most positive facet that he has learned from the STS is “there are many like-minded students across the country that are engrossed in math and science and improving the world”.
He credits the STEM program at Bangor High School for helping him to embark upon his research and learn how to communicate it effectively.
“My advice to pursuing STEM is to find a problem in the world or questions you find intriguing, then dive into the math and science as you try to solve these problems”, he said.
Shah earned seventh place and took home $70,000 for developing a diagnostic tool that tracks eye movements to identify neurological disorders.
During the virtual Public Exhibition, he told viewers, “I got interested in eye movements by watching football. I noticed how when players get hit hard, they are taken aside for a quick eye test. It’s to see whether they have a concussion. But, I started thinking about how we can use eye movements for other disorders”.
His findings revealed specific patterns between neurotypical patients and those with Parkinson’s, dementia, multiple sclerosis and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, more commonly known as ADHD. He noted, “in Parkinson’s, we see these quick tremors occurring and in ADHD, we see inaccurate and poor predictions”.
Shah tested his tool on 200 patients at a local neuroscience practice. The participants were split into eight groups with 25 in each: Parkinson’s; dementia; multiple sclerosis; ADHD; and four neurotypical age ranges. Each participant underwent four trials.
Replying to a question on the challenges he faced, the whizkid replied it was finding patients willing to participate in the trial. “I got in touch with my 200 participants by cold communicating, neuroscience labs and crowd funding”, he disclosed.
“I use machine learning because of its many applications, but I’m mainly interested in AI because of how it mimics neuroscience”, he said. “Right now, I’m working on developing new MRI and concussion technology. But, in the future, I’ll be working on neural engineering projects”.
Oregon governor Kate Brown tweeted, “Congratulations to the top 40 finalists in #RegeneronSTS 2021 including Vedanth (Iyer), Gopal and Wenjun (Hou) from Portland! Thank you to Regeneron and Society for Science for supporting our student scientists”.
The top award of $250,000 was conferred on Yunseo Choi, 18, of Exeter, New Hampshire, for showing how her matching theory logic has numerous real-life applications. In second place was Noah Getz, 17, of New York, awarded $175,000 for his research which adjusts the way computer models identify promising pharmaceutical compounds that could make the discovery of new drugs faster and less expensive.
Congratulating the winners, Maya Ajmera, President and CEO of Society for Science, noted, “Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, students like Yunseo have shown incredible resilience and perseverance in the face of new obstacles, conducting rigorous research, while navigating an uncertain world. These young people are the stewards of our future and I could not be more inspired by their hard work and pure grit”.
Hailing the scientific prowess of the winners, Dr. George Yancopoulos, Co-Founder, President and Chief Scientific Officer of Regeneron, affirmed, “Your curiosity and passion for science – as well as your unique genius for it – has now been validated”.
Dr. Yancopoulos credits his experience as a winner of the 1976 STS for being an important early step on his path to a life devoted to using the power of science to do good. It led his team to invent medicines to treat blindness, allergic diseases, Ebola and Covid-19.
“I hope you now take on the responsibility of using your powers and ingenuity to help address some of the truly existential challenges facing humanity, from disease to climate change”, he told winners of the current competition.
The finalists hailed from 37 schools and one home school across 15 states. In January, 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 received a minimum award of $25,000 were then named including eight Indian-origin teens: Laalitya Acharya, 17, of Mason, Ohio, who created Nereid, a cohesive device that uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) processing to determine if there are contaminants in a sample of water; Akhilesh Balasingam, 17, of San Jose, California, whose research focused on optimizing a device which can simultaneously perform memory and arithmetic operations. It enables hardware that can speed up algorithms while consuming little energy; Vedanth Iyer, 17, of Portland, Oregon, who explored a cost effective solution for improving lithium-ion battery performance; Anushka Sanyal, 17, of Cupertino, California, for leveraging RNA systems to tackle neurodegeneration; and the four top ten winners – Jha, Goel, Vel, and Shah.
The Science Talent Search, a program of the 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, 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 a decade.
Reflecting on the most positive lesson she gained from the STS, Jha mentioned it was from the alumni dinner featuring award-winning puzzle-maker and board game designer Wei-Hwa Huang. “His keynote speech was about characterizing success and how all lessons can be found in all our life experiences, even day-to-day ones”, she said.
Her advice for students looking to pursue research is: ask questions. “Science can explain baffling idiosyncracies and be used to explore the world on macroscopic and microscopic levels. When you find something that can’t be explained or have an idea that you find exciting, that can make for a great research project”, Jha said.