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Biotech company Regeneron is science contest’s new sponsor

George D. Yancopoulos, the founding scientist and chief

George D. Yancopoulos, the founding scientist and chief scientific officer of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc., on Thursday, May 26, 2016. Regeneron is Intel contest's new sponsor. Photo Credit: Society for Science & the Public

A renowned high school science competition that over the decades has attracted some of the nation’s brightest students — including scores from Long Island — will go on under a new corporate banner and offer larger monetary rewards to top contenders and their schools.

Enter the Regeneron Science Talent Search, formerly known as Intel, and formerly known as Westinghouse.

The competition founded in 1942 secured a $100 million commitment for monetary awards and programs from Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc., a biopharmaceutical company in Tarrytown, to continue through 2026.

The company is doubling the amount of funds for yearly awards to $3.1 million, raising the main prize from $150,000 to $250,000 and doubling awards for the top 300 students and their schools to $2,000 each. In addition, $30 million will be set aside to increase outreach across the country, particularly in underprivileged communities needing access to programs for science, technology, engineering and math.

“It’s quite extraordinary because it helps our organization scale its work” to reach more potential scientists, said Maya Ajmera, president and CEO of the Society for Science & the Public, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that started and administers the competition.

Regeneron is only the third corporate sponsor in 75 years, following the Westinghouse manufacturing company that backed the talent search until 1997 and the Intel computing company that did so until this year.

To George D. Yancopoulos, the founding scientist and chief scientific officer of Regeneron, his company’s involvement followed a natural progression from being himself a top winner of the former Westinghouse competition as a Bronx High School of Science student in 1976, to forming a company directed and staffed by alumni of the contest, to wanting to sustain “a rich pipeline of talent” from the next generation.

“We feel this responsibility and commitment, you know, to pay it forward,” Yancopoulos told Newsday. “We need to attract the best young minds and keep them in science, because science is the only thing that’s going to save our world . . . We need the greatest minds to worry about climate change, or to worry about cancer, or every time Zika or Ebola or something else comes along, we need those types of minds working on these problems.”

The company was selected out of about 50 companies and philanthropists, with 10 of those submitting detailed letters of intent and four complete proposals considered.

Long Island and New York City are “a hotbed of science research” and have sent scores of students to the competition over the years, said George Baldo, who retired last year as director of InSTAR science research at Ward Melville High School in Setauket.

Schools in Nassau and Suffolk counties have produced at least one finalist each year, and occasionally as many as 11, for more than a quarter-century. Forty-four seniors from Long Island high schools won semifinalist honors this year, and three went on to compete in Washington, D.C., as national finalists.

The contest’s continuation both will ensure that many Long Island students continue to compete for the prizes and help to boost enthusiasm in STEM fields, educators said.

“It’s wonderful,” said Serena McCalla, science research coordinator for the Jericho schools. “Some of these students should be seen as our heroes, because it takes so much dedication, perseverance and effort to become a scientist . . . and if we can show them monetarily, that’s a beautiful thing.”

Miriam Rafailovich, who as director of the Garcia Center for Polymers and Engineered Interfaces at Stony Brook University works with high school science students, said many were waiting to hear that the contest’s legacy would endure.

“The kids who go through our program said this contest changed their path and the way they look at themselves,” she said. “A lot of kids do research, but when they know these competitions are there it gives them a focus and it gives them feedback” that their efforts are appreciated.

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