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Long Island high schoolers come up short in Regeneron science competition

Lucy Zha, 17, a Regeneron finalist, uses a

Lucy Zha, 17, a Regeneron finalist, uses a pipette in the science lab at The Wheatley School on Feb. 8. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Two Long Island high school students in the finals of the Regeneron Science Talent Search Wednesday came up short of placing in the top 10 but each still claimed a $25,000 prize for making it as far as they did.

Jericho High School senior Justin Shen, 17, of Glen Head, and Lucy Zha, 17, of Albertson, a senior at The Wheatley School, competed as finalists in the global competition based on students' research skills, innovative thinking and promise as scientists. They were among the 40 finalists named in January, which secured their place in Wednesday's finals.

The 40 finalists were selected from more than 1,700 applicants who competed virtually this week 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 for higher education, said officials with Regeneron and the Society for Science, the nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., that runs the competition.

Zha and Shen both overcame challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, including the sudden and prolonged closure of their schools and labs. Both students were mentored by SUNY Old Westbury biology Professor Wei Zhu, who said that their research not only benefited the students' thinking ability but also increased public awareness of health and the environment.

In a text message, Sean Feeney, principal of The Wheatley School, called Zha’s accomplishment "incredible."

"Although she did not get recognized as one of the Top Ten," Feeney said, "she made her teachers and school so proud by the manner in which she conducted herself this past week. Lucy is simply amazing!"

Shen's project focused on how amino acid in green tea can reduce toxicity in water pollutants. His project examined a link between water contaminants and Parkinson's disease. He said he always has been interested in environmental issues.

Shen is an accomplished cellist who also plays tennis. He serves as co-president of his high school's environmental club. He has not yet selected a college.

His advice to other young scientists? Persevere.

"At first the research may seem daunting because you are reading a lot of graduate-level articles that seem extremely complex," he told Newsday recently. "But the most important thing is to persevere through the initial period, and know it gets a lot better as you keep going."

Zha, whose school is in the East Williston district, was chosen for her research on the impact of plant-based chemicals on cancer cells. She performed a study to test their synergistic effect on cancer cells and on zebrafish larvae. Her study was inspired by a relative who had been diagnosed with cancer.

She focused on finding an effective treatment for neuroblastoma, which is one of the most common childhood brain cancers. Her findings revealed that curcumin and capsaicin, two chemicals extracted from plants — the spices of turmeric and pepper — were able to stop the tumor development. However, curcumin at high concentrations can have some toxicity on hypothalamic cells, which are cells in the brain that are crucial to maintaining the equilibrium of the body. Those results signaled the need for further research, she said.

Zha said she plans to pursue science research in college but has not yet selected a school to attend. She's in the National Honor Society, is president of her school's book club and has served in the student senate.

"I am passionate about many urgent environmental issues in the world, such as freshwater contamination and the impact of climate change on bird migration," she told Newsday in a previous interview.

The top 10 awards were announced at the end of a livestreamed virtual awards ceremony Wednesday night.

Yunseo Choi, 18, of Exeter, New Hampshire, took the first place prize for her research as a theoretical "match maker." She matched algorithms that work for a finite number of couples and determined which important properties would still work for an infinite number of them, according to the competition organizers.

She is a student at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and is from Seoul, South Korea, according to the school.

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