WASHINGTON — Jericho High School senior Archana Verma won fifth place Tuesday night in one of the nation’s most prestigious science and math competitions for her work that could lead to efficient solar energy windows.
Verma was one of three Long Island seniors among the nation’s top young scientific minds chosen as finalists from 1,749 entries in the Regeneron Science Talent Search.
The two others were Nathaniel Lee, also of Jericho High, who worked on improving laser technology to help detect diseases or even bombs and Emily Peterson of Smithtown High School East in St. James, whose work focused on healing burn victims. All are 17.
The 40 finalists were honored at a gala at the National Building Museum for the competition, a program of the nonprofit Society for Science & the Public that previously was sponsored by Westinghouse and then Intel. The contest has 12 Nobel Prize winners who are alumni.
The top prize — and $250,000 — went to Indrani Das, 17, of the Academy for Medical Science Technology in Oradell, New Jersey. She did an in vitro study of treatment for brain injury.
Verma was awarded $90,000 for fifth place and Lee and Peterson won $25,000 each.
Verma’s mouth opened wide as her high school was announced, replaced by a huge smile.
As the winners absorbed the news on stage minutes after the announcement, Serena McCalla, science research coordinator at Jericho, blew a kiss to Verma. “She’s so stoic about it — scream!” she instructed her student with a smile.
“I will soon,” Verma promised. “I am completely in shock.”
Verma’s parents, Alka, a homemaker, and Rakesh, who works in finance, watched from the audience. “When they said Jericho, my heart stopped,” her mother said. “Everyone is a winner but being top 10 is special.”
Verma studied dyes to look for more efficient types that can be used in windows that generate solar energy. Current dyes convert only 15 percent of sunlight into energy, and Verma said she liked the idea of drawing attention to new ways of looking at the problem to find more efficiency. She also plays badminton, dances Bollywood style and leads Science Bowl and Quiz Bowl teams at her school.
McCalla said Verma’s depth of understanding likely impressed the judges.
“Perseverance, dedication, motivation: She has the trifecta,” McCalla said. “She doesn’t accept not knowing something.”
Peterson’s work focused on a particular protein’s effect on skin cancers and burns.
Her father, Kevin, is a St. James firefighter and Suffolk County fire marshal. When she was 8 or 9, she was so affected by hearing him talk about burn victims that she founded a charity that gives teddy bears to young burn victims at Stony Brook Hospital.
“I’ve gotten to see people affected by large-scale wounds and I know how devastating they can be,” she said of her visits to the burn unit, just as a contest judge stopped by her poster to tell her she has a bright future.
Peterson also competes on the math and badminton teams at Smithtown East.
Maria Zeitlin, science research coordinator at Smithtown, said Peterson already thinks like a scientist.
“She asks great questions,” Zeitlin said. “She’s not as interested in the results as where the results will steer her for the right questions.”
Lee was inspired by his grandfather’s illness, which went undetected after a regular checkup. He studied a way to improve optical parametric oscillators, which someday may be used for early detection of diseases or on military vehicles to scan for explosives or poison gases.
OPOs, as they are known, are laserlike devices that use crystals that are expensive, hard-to-make and toxic. Lee worked on a low-cost ceramic replacement for the crystals that now is in clinical trials.
Lee’s grandfather now is in his 90s and Lee hopes his research means others will have diseases detected earlier.
“We might be able to detect diseases pre-emptively instead of waiting for symptoms to show,” said Lee, wearing a tuxedo, his finalist blue ribbon and a big smile. He also is an Eagle Scout, cross country runner and president of the Student Council at Jericho High School.
The finalists spent nearly a week in Washington and explained their work to public visitors at the National Geographic Society, answered questions from judges and met with leaders in science and politics.
Lee said he enjoyed answering questions from everyone from college professors to students who wanted his email to ask for advice on science projects.
All three students are waiting to hear from colleges. Verma wants to study chemical engineering, Peterson wants to study biochemistry to prepare for medical school and Lee plans to study computer science.
Verma’s father said the experience in the Regeneron competition has been amazing for his daughter.
“This will go a long way in character development: the amount of hard work she did, the exposure she got, the unbelievable network of great people,” he said. “It’s a lifetime experience.”
Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), whose district includes Jericho, gave Lee and Verma certificates of recognition and flags that had flown over the Capitol.
“I’ve seen Long Island produce these amazing people with big ideas,” he said. “We need to encourage that and celebrate that.”
This is the first year that Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, a Westchester County firm, sponsored the contest, which began in 1942. The company committed to a 10-year, $100 million investment and increased the prize money for winners.