Ward Melville High School senior Amber Luo was home for barely a day from a third-place finish in the Regeneron Science Talent Search competition before she was readying to board a bus for another highly regarded academic competition.
Luo, 18, of Stony Brook, flew home on Wednesday from the Regeneron event in Washington, D.C., where she won $150,000 and was named one of the nation's top young scientists. On Thursday, she was off to upstate LeMoyne College near Syracuse to compete in the New York State Science Olympiad tournament. She is a captain on her school's team.
Her finish in D.C. "was like a dream come true," she said.
"I heard Ward Melville and I was like, 'Did I just hear that right?' To be able to be in the top three is something everybody dreams of," Luo said Thursday morning at her school about the Regeneron experience. Her research on computational biology was selected from more than 1,800 projects worldwide.
Luo developed a software called RiboBayes, a computational tool used to reveal how ribosomes move along a cell’s mRNA transcript to produce proteins. Her work, she said, can enable researchers to gain a better view of underlying health conditions in a range of diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.
A 4.0 student, Luo said she went through three days of judging in D.C., where top scientists asked questions about her project — and about other topics, too.
"They asked me how many M&M's can fit in a swimming pool? They pick out questions to find out how you think about science," said Luo, who used math and chemistry to explain how she would go about figuring out the answers.
On the third day, she was asked about her project. "It is so much fun, honestly, to talk about your research with some of the brightest researchers in the nation," Luo said.
Regeneron selections were based on research skills, academics, innovation and promise as scientists. Long Island had seven students in the finals, covering a variety of topics, including studies on the Island’s salt marsh ecosystem, eye cancer, voting habits and COVID-19-induced stress.
The top 10 Regeneron finishers were announced at a gala Tuesday night. The students were chosen from among 1,804 applications from 603 high schools across 46 states, D.C., Puerto Rico and eight countries. Finalists were selected from 300 semifinalists chosen earlier this year.
Luo said she has been accepted at both Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but has not decided which school to attend. She plans to use the prize money for college.
Luo is considering going into medicine or getting a doctorate so she can continue research, teach and treat patients. Her mother, Weiqin Lu, is a cancer researcher and associate professor in the Department of Medicine at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University. Her father, Yongde Luo, is a professor at a university in Wenzhou, China.
While some students take years to finish their projects, Luo took only a few months. Her idea was sparked when she attended a virtual research program through MIT, and later worked virtually on her project with a professor from the University of Texas at Austin.
Marnie Kula, Ward Melville High's science chair and coordinator of the research program InStar, watched Luo in D.C. on a livestream.
"I am so proud of her," Kula said. "It was reassuring to see kids being celebrated for doing really good things that will have positive impacts in the world."
The InStar program, an elective that students apply for, runs for three years. Luo is in her third year, including two years during the COVID-19 pandemic. She was a sophomore in March 2020 when schools shut down.
"It has been a unique road for this senior class. But they stuck to it, and she is really a leader in this," Kula said. "She has a tenacity that is unprecedented. She gave me her manuscript in early fall, I read it … and I handed it back, and said, ‘Amber this is the most perfect first draft manuscript I have ever read in my career.' "
On Thursday, Luo boarded a bus with her team for the state Science Olympiad, where teams compete in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
"As captain, I have to manage the team's logistics," said Luo, who will compete in four events. "I have to make sure everyone is preparing for their events and are ready to go."
What to know
- Amber Luo, 18, of Stony Brook, won $150,000 and was named one of the top young scientists in the country Tuesday in the finals of the Regeneron Science Talent Search in Washington, D.C.
- Her research — development of a software called RiboBayes, a computational tool used to reveal how ribosomes move along a cell’s mRNA transcript to produce proteins — can enable researchers to gain a better view of underlying health conditions in a range of diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.
- Luo also likes helping others. She founded an educational STEM nonprofit called Illumina Learning, which provides free online courses in biology, research and computing from accomplished high school scientists to aspiring young students.