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Jericho's Justin Shen is finalist in national science competition

Justin Shen, of Glen Head, is among the

Justin Shen, of Glen Head, is among the 40 finalists in the Regeneron Science Talent Search competition. He spoke to Newsday, explaining the inspiration behind his project. Credit: Zoom

Second of three in a series on the Regeneron Science Talent Search.

Jericho High School senior Justin Shen will compete next week as a finalist in the Regeneron Science Talent Search, a global competition based on students' research skills, innovative thinking and promise as scientists.

Forty finalists from more than 1,700 applicants were selected to compete virtually for awards ranging from $40,000 for 10th place to $250,000 for first. Each finalist already has received $25,000. Students can use the money toward funding their higher education, said Regeneron and the Society for Science, the nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., that runs the competition.

The top 10 awards will be announced during a livestreamed virtual awards ceremony March 17.

Shen's project focused on how amino acid in green tea can reduce toxicity in water pollutants. His project examines a link between water contaminants and Parkinson's disease. He was mentored by SUNY Old Westbury biology professor Wei Zhu.

About Shen

As an accomplished cellist, the 17-year-old from Glen Head has played at both Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall — the latter when he was just 14. He is a nationally ranked tennis player as well, but he said his greatest passion is environmental issues.

Shen serves as co-president of Jericho High School's Environmental Club, participated in an arctic climate research program in Canada and used a machine learning model to forecast air pollution in South Korea.

"He is the perfect example of when you love what you do — success follows," said Serena McCalla, the Jericho district's science research coordinator.

Shen on his project

It investigates a water contaminant found in drinking water supplies that's linked to Parkinson's disease and how a green tea chemical — L-Theanine — may ameloriate some of the neurotoxic effects of this water contaminate, which is also linked to Parkinson's disease. So, hopefully my chemical can offer a solution to some of the communities facing drinking water pollution and hopefully curb Parkinson's disease onset.

How did you decide on your topic?

This topic came up when I first moved to Long Island in the fifth grade and I heard a lot of mixed rumors about whether the drinking water was safe to drink or not. This is something that stuck in the back of my mind for a little bit until I decided to pursue scientific research in high school. … I decided to research trichloroethylene, which is a water pollutant found in Long Island's drinking water and one of the contaminants leading to Long Island's drinking water pollution. When I further researched this, I realized that previous research in this field was lacking. I thought that adding my own contributions could be advantageous for the entire scientific community.

Did the coronavirus pandemic impact your project?

It definitely got hard during the pandemic because a lot of labs were closed and I wasn't able to go to my school as usual and consult with my friends and research teacher. The pandemic, on the other hand, gave me some time to refine my own project and take a step back and look at my previously collected data from a broader point of view, and it gave me time to review existing literature. And that also helped me a lot.

When did you start and how much time did this take?

I have been working on this project I'd say since toward the end of 10th grade. I don't know if I could give an exact hour count, but I spent a lot of hours — in the ballpark of 20 hours a week, at least, reviewing literature and reviewing my project as well. I used to go to a lab a lot during the summer, but, during the pandemic, I wasn't able to. But I was lucky when my school started back in September. I was able to go back into the lab for one to two weeks just to finalize my data a little bit, and I was able to collect a few more data sets that were extremely important.

Tell us about a typical day of research.

I collected a majority of my data during the summers. I worked with my research teacher to look within my data and make sure I am presenting it in the best way possible, which ultimately helped a lot during competitions. I wanted to make sure I was presenting it very clearly and concisely. I would stay after school to talk to my research teacher even more and go through practice presentations with my peers, as well just to see if they can catch anything in my presentation that seemed unclear.

What do you hope your research leads to?

I hope my research leads to solutions in areas facing contaminated drinking water. I hope it leads to other research articles that continue to investigate this issue. I still believe this issue is extremely understudied. And I think that with studies similar to mine and if people continue to research this topic, we could make tremendous strides in the coming years.

Will you continue this field of study in the future?

Yes, I am really interested in environmental science, and it is a field I am looking to pursue in college and possibly past college and in graduate school as well. I am looking into how the environment interacts with biology and other fields as well.

What are your other interests?

I play a lot of tennis — that is my number one hobby. I like playing tennis with my friends and competitively. I am co-president of my school's environmental club and through that we raised a lot of awareness … and [sent] outreach groups to our elementary and middle schools. And I have done nonprofit work in the field of environmental activism to raise awareness for global water issues through social media.

Do you have advice for younger scientists?

I think the biggest advice is to persevere because at first the research may seem daunting because you are reading a lot of graduate-level articles that seem extremely complex. But the most important thing is to persevere through the initial period, and know it gets a lot better as you keep going.

About Regeneron Science Talent Search

The 40 finalists were selected from 1,760 applications received from 611 high schools across 45 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and 10 countries. They were chosen based on their research skills, academics, innovative thinking and promise as scientists, according to Regeneron, the sponsor and a pharmaceutical company based in Tarrytown.

About Justin Shen

  • Senior, Jericho High School, Nassau County
  • Member of varsity tennis team
  • Co-president of Environmental Club
  • One of four Jericho High students who built a website early in the coronavirus pandemic on where to find COVID-19 test sites
  • Accomplished cellist

Project title: L-Theanine: Neuroprotective Against Trichloroethylene-Induced Parkinson’s Disease Hallmark.

Where to watch the virtual finals: Register at https://ssp.6connex.com/event/virtual/vsts/login to attend the Virtual Public Exhibition of the original research projects of the Regeneron finalists, from March 14 to 31.

Meet the finalists: Viewers can ask finalists questions live online at their booths from 2 to 4 p.m. on March 14.

The ceremony: The Winners Award Ceremony will be livestreamed at 8 p.m. on March 17 at: https://ssp.6connex.com/event/virtual/vsts/login

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