Every year, millions of high school students make projects for their school science fair. Out of these imaginative smarties, 40 are selected to compete in the national competition, which has been giving awards to young geniuses since 1942. The Regeneron Science Talent Search (known as the Westinghouse Science Talent Search from 1942-1997 and the Intel Science Talent Search from 1998-2016) brings kids from 31 schools in 15 states together to vie for glory and 1.8 million dollars in prize money. Alumni of the competition have gone on to win a crazy amount of awards, such as National Medals of Science, MacArthur Foundation Fellowships, Fields Medals, and Nobel Prizes (13 so far!). They’ve also founded innovative tech companies, transformed the practice of medicine, shaped environmental policy, and transformed the world with their brilliant minds and fierce leadership. We’re so jazzed that a few STEM stars from this year’s magnificent class–including the 2nd, 3rd, and 10th place winners!–took a break from their research, activism, and artistic pursuits to tell us a little bit about themselves.
Maggie Chen, of San Diego, CA, created a 3D-printed nano-device that can absorb toxins emitted by antibiotic resistant bacteria, helping the immune system heal on its own without antibiotics.
You were one of the winners of a Marvel Studios STEM competition in 2016. If you were a superhero, what powers would you have?
My favorite superheroes are Black Widow and Ironman—both are strong, brave, and committed to bettering the world. I would love to have an amalgamation of both their powers! My ideal powers would be shrinking down to a nanoscale size to witness cellular phenomena firsthand, and flying/diving to great heights or depths to explore our planet and the galaxy surrounding us. Like many of the Marvel heroes, however, my greatest priority would be to make the world a safer place. And, even without the superpowers, I aim to achieve that through my research on antibacterial treatments. Detoxifying the world, one bacterium at a time.
What’s your next big project?
My next big project is to develop a tissue model to investigate further antibiotic-resistant bacteria. I’m excited to further research treatments for these pathogens, and to approach this global problem in diverse new ways. I’m also looking forward to finally getting my driver’s license!
Kavya Kopparapu, of Alexandria, VA, designed a deep learning tool to accurately obtain relevant molecular and genetic tumor information from scanned images in a matter of seconds, aiming to speed the treatment for glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. She founded Girls Computing League to inspire more young women to pursue computer science.
How did you get interested in computer learning and artificial intelligence?
My interest in computer science began in 7th grade when I attended an AspireIT workshop at George Mason University. I listened to high school girls talk about their innovative computer science projects and felt empowered by women executives. Prior to that, I had minimal coding experience, but was fascinated by the concept of teaching a computer to learn and recognize patterns in a real-world situation. In 8th grade, after I was accepted to Thomas Jefferson High School, I participated in a National Center for Women in Information & Technology (NCWIT)-sponsored competition, coming up with a prototype to diagnose diabetes using a mobile application that won the competition. This small win encouraged me to pursue learning Java over the summer and place into AP Computer Science my freshman year, and to take Artificial Intelligence and Computer Vision classes in the following years.
Tell me how the Girls Computing League came about. What kind of work has it done thus far?
As a freshman at Thomas Jefferson High school, I was healing from a ACL knee surgery from playing lacrosse. I was taking AP Computer science and saw a gender gap. I had decided not to play sports anymore and wanted to invest that time in something meaningful for others, so I decided to start a nonprofit to teach girls computer science. My vision is that every student in every school has the opportunity to learn computer science just as they learn English, science, history or mathematics. I am working towards building the technology learning pipeline from elementary school to high school to college to industry, and creating a lifelong support network of mentors for students who wouldn’t get technology opportunities otherwise. Girls Computing League hosted the first Artificial Intelligence Conference for about 350 high school students last year in Virginia, to encourage students to learn about the technology by directly interacting with leading industry experts. In the spring of 2017, GCL hosted the BioCode hackathon for about 220 middle and high school students. We hope to host AI conferences and hackathons for high school students throughout the nation with the support of donations from companies.
Natalia Orlovsky, of Glen Mills, PA, has conducted research on the effects of vaping on lung cells. Her research showed that the contents of e-cigarette fluid, while not directly carcinogenic, can cause harm. She placed second in the competition.
Do any of your friends vape? Do you have to fight the temptation to tell them or randos what you’ve learned about the dangers of vaping out of concern for their lung cells?
While most of my close friends don’t use e-cigarettes (to my knowledge!), vaping is a serious problem in my school community. This is reflective of a broader trend among young people across America. While I sometimes suffer the impulse to discuss my research with other people, I know that my ability to dissuade my peers from vaping is limited. If we want to enact real change, we need to try other, larger-scale approaches, like focusing on e-cigarette safety in school health classes and teaching kids to critically evaluate advertising materials.