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Virginia teen takes top award in science contest

Ahmad Perez, 17, of Brentwood High School's Sonderling

Ahmad Perez, 17, of Brentwood High School's Sonderling Center explains his project to retired National Institutes of Health scientist Gerald Ehrenstein at the Regeneron Science Talent Search awards gala, held Tuesday night at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. Credit: Doug Kapustin

WASHINGTON — A Virginia teen found what could be the hiding places of hundreds of new planets and won the $250,000 top prize Tuesday night in the 2019 Regeneron Science Talent Search, which included five Long Island students among the 40 finalists.

Ana Humphrey of Alexandria, Virginia, is the first Hispanic winner in 20 years for the contest, which draws the brightest science, math and engineering students for the nation’s oldest such contest for high school seniors.

Humphrey, 18, used a mathematical model to find the mostly likely locations for planets outside our solar system. Her work could help in the search for life in outer space and the understanding of the formation of planets.

None of Long Island’s finalists finished in the top 10, but all go home with $25,000, plus the $2,000 they had already won for being in the 300 chosen nationally as Regeneron Scholars, the contest’s semifinalist level. Alumni of the competition have gone on to win Nobel prizes and other major awards.

The local teens said they felt like winners just being in the finals, which included days of exposure to top scientists, a grilling by a judging panel and bonding time with fellow STEM students.

“I’ve learned to keep my mind open to learning,” said Madhav Subramanian, 18, of Jericho High School. “Both the judges and students are brilliant here.”

He studied how to stop the production of blood vessels near tumors to prevent the spread of cancer. This summer he’ll be back in the lab at Washington University in St. Louis, trying to figure out what cancers the treatment might work on, with breast, colon and renal cancer being his top targets.

Subramanian said the judging panel was tough. “They ask you about everything but your field. The questions weren’t phrased to stump you, but to work through how you think.”

The 40 finalists, in tuxedos and other formalwear, stood next to posters of their work in the National Building Museum, before the gala dinner there, as scientific leaders and proud parents stopped by to ply them with questions.

Ahmad Perez, 17, of Brentwood High School’s Sonderling Center, smoothly described his research in Long Island marshes to a retiree from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Perez found a solution to erosion in marshes near his home that causes fish kills and environmental damage. His solution would add biopolymers to sediment to prevent erosion and to grow marsh grasses that lower nitrate concentrations.

“You see how driven everyone is and how revolutionary their ideas are,” Perez said of the other students. “This is not just a research project to us, but our lives’ passion.”

Perez said solving the problem could save money lost by the fishing industry and by the government in fixing environmental damage. It especially could help countries such as Angola and South Africa that lack the funds to repair erosion in marshes, he said.

Justin Schiavo, 18, of Roslyn High School, enjoyed talking with leading scientists — Regeneron chief scientific officer George D. Yancopoulos among them.

“The heart of STS is you get to learn and explore things with scientists from all different fields. They all think on the same level,” he said. “Science does an amazing thing that connects people together in such a magical and surreal way.”

Schiavo tested rockets and found a copper nozzle to add to hybrid rocket engines that made them more useful, because the nozzles can withstand heat and are affordable.

“I tried to make space more available to the general public,” he said. The hybrid rocket can be built out of items in a hardware store. “Imagine a class building a rocket and sending it into space,” he said of the possible uses of his discovery.

Thomas Lam, 17, of Syosset High School, said the contest, regardless of his final placement, was “like winning the lottery. All the food, the luxuries, and crazy events,” he said, gesturing toward the soaring atrium in the historic museum.

Lam used mathematics to find a way to solve any-size version of a number rotational puzzle — sort of a flat Rubik’s Cube. He confided with a grin that the project doesn’t have a lot of real-world applications. But he learned “just because it’s difficult, doesn’t mean you can’t do it.”

The judging also taught him “I don’t know a lot,” he said.

Eish Maheshwari, just 16 because he skipped kindergarten, dove into science as a child when his parents gave him a microscope and other such items as toys. “I loved exploring the world my own way,” Maheshwari said. “It pushed me to use my heritage to inspire me in my research.”

Maheshwari was born in India, surrounded by relatives who urged him to eat turmeric because of its health properties. His research focused on the drug curcumin, which comes from turmeric. That drug and others can’t be delivered easily because bodies don’t absorb it. He studied using nanoparticles as part of red blood cell-based drug delivery systems.

Perez said he’ll use some of his winnings to start a science outreach program in his community, which has many immigrant families. His mother is Moroccan and his father is Puerto Rican.

“I want to show that it doesn’t matter where you are from or who you are,” he said. “All that matters is your dedication.”

The finalists stood on risers to hear which of them would be in the top 10, as two Nobel Prize winners and an estimated crowd of 700 watched at the gala dinner.

Yancopoulos pointed out that entertainment prodigies are highlighted on “America’s Got Talent” and other shows, but young scientists such as the Regeneron contest’s finalists could be the ones to address climate change. eradicate epidemics or make streets safer.

“We need to elevate them as the real heroes in our society,” he said.

All five Long Island students plan to head to college next year, though most are waiting to hear where they are admitted.

Lam is headed to Carnegie Mellon University to study math. Schiavo plans to study aerospace engineering. Then his big plans begin.

“I want to be the first man to build, design or fly the first rocket to Mars,” he said.

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