WASHINGTON — Two Jericho High School seniors walked away from one of the nation’s top science and math competitions Tuesday with $25,000 each, and new ideas about what their future holds as scientists.
Andrew Fang and Leo Lo were among 40 finalists in the Regeneron Science and Talent Search for their potential as leaders in the world of science and their research projects — Fang for treating Parkinson’s and Lo for improving microscopes used in designing nanoscale materials.
The winner of the top prize of $250,000 was Benjamin J. Firester of New York City, 18, for his research on a mathematical model that predicts how weather patterns could spread the late blight fungus, which causes billions of dollars in crop damage annually and led to the Irish potato Famine.
The winners were announced Tuesday night at a black-tie gala at the National Building Museum honoring 40 of the brightest seniors in science in the country.
Lo, 18, and Fang, 17, decked out in tuxedos with a blue ribbon hanging around their necks with their finalist medals, spent the first portion of Tuesday evening standing before posters explaining their work to passing scientists, parents of other finalists and the press.
Lo developed a simulation method that may enhance the design of scattering-type scanning near-field optical microscopes and improve the efficiency of custom nanoscale material design. He was mentored at Stony Brook University by physics professor Mengkun Liu. “He is a rising star, I’m sure of that,” Liu said as hundreds of people milled past the student’s posters.
A dumbstruck Lo managed a “wow” after one of the evaluators involved in selecting students, Jonathan Arias of the National Institutes of Health, said “I’ve been doing this for 14 years. Yours was one of the top I’ve seen.”
Lo worked on improving the design process of nanotechnology materials.
Liu, Lo’s mentor, said Lo’s work was “a true breakthrough” that would work on various objects.
Lo said he’s always been interested in “playing with light” since his days as a young child visiting science museums. Working in a lab during the past two summers, he heard the frustrations of scientists about the time-consuming process of finding the best parameters for the nanomaterials they need for experiments. Lo’s work could help streamline and make less expensive that process by using computer simulations. Nanomaterials are used in solar cells, computer chips and science experiments. Lo said the work had applications for virus research, looking at how cancer proliferates and making smaller and faster computers. “It has huge, different applications in different fields,” Lo said.
Fang’s research focused on whether a drug for treating malaria can be used to slow down the progression of Parkinson’s disease, which afflicted his late grandfather.
“It gave me insight into how really cruel this disease is,” Fang said. “A person has to become dependent on family members. It’s really sad for the patient himself, who can’t do what he has been able to do his entire life.”
His research showed that the drug artemisinin may decrease inflammation that causes Parkinson’s and slow down the progression of the disease, which he said had not seen new treatments for 40 years.
Fang broke into a grin when he was asked how many hours he devoted to the research — 7 hours a day during the summer, and 3 hours on school days, plus weekends.
Fang and Lo both said they had loved meeting the other finalists, judges and other top scientists. “We’ve been treated like rock stars,” said Fang, who is waiting to hear from colleges and plans to study biology.
Founded and produced by Society for Science & the Public, the Regeneron Science Talent Search is the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors.
Fang said the panel of judges from various backgrounds pressed them hard to answer multidisciplinary questions. “It taught me the importance of not just being laser focused on your research. You never know when something from another field can have applications.”
Lo agreed. “I’m a transformed person,” he said. “Before I was too narrowly focused on just physics. Now I really see it’s about connecting different ideas in different fields. That’s how we can make progress.”
The national finalists were chosen from 300-plus Regeneron Scholars named earlier this month — 46 of whom were Long Island students. Jericho High School had a total of 11 scholars — the second-most in the state.
Last year, the 1,100-student high school had nine Regeneron Scholars. Three went on to become national finalists, with one — Archana Verma — earning fifth place nationally. Verma, a student at Stanford, offered Fang and Lo advice from afar, said Dr. Serena McCalla, the coordinator of Jericho’s science research program.
Lo will study physics and maybe computer science next year at Columbia University.
Fang plans to study biology next year and said his week in Washington “really gave insight into what my future can be. I want to do something innovative in biology, do something that will accelerate progress.”
His father, Yixin Fang, said he advised his son to “savor every moment. The doors are open wide for you.”
George D. Yancopoulos, chief scientific officer at Regeneron, told the nearly 700 people gathered in the ornate National Building Museum that he was sitting in the competitors’ place in 1976, when he was a finalist in the contest then sponsored by Westinghouse. His top 10 finish gave him courage that changed his life, he said. Last year, the man who headed up the society the year that Yancopoulos competed came to the awards gala to tell him his macular degeneration was treated with a drug Yancopoulos’ company developed. This year’s finalists, he said, “better be thinking of coming up with the discoveries and innovations, that will be helping the rest of us in 30 or 40 years.”
This year’s contest drew more than 1,800 entries, which are judged based on the originality and creativity of the students’ scientific research, as well as their achievements and leadership, both inside and outside the classroom. McCalla, whose program has done well in the competition, said the secret was “when kids follow their passions, the sky’s the limit.”
With Joie Tyrrell