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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Students offer hope for bright future

There is one day in January that always seems a little warmer than the others.

That's the day the semifinalists are unveiled in the prestigious Regeneron Science Talent Search. Previous iterations were sponsored by Westinghouse and then Intel, but by any name reaching the semifinals of this competition is a prodigious feat. This year, an impressive 49 high school students from Long Island were among the 300 nationally and internationally who made the cut.

It was merely coincidental that this year's news arrived on Jan. 6, amid the myriad commemorations of one of the darkest days in American history, the accomplishments of these teens lighting the day like a laser in a void.

Their research reveals a group of young people with their fingers on the pulse of the nation. Their work illuminates problems in our collective heartbeat, and it offers paths to corrections and solutions.

They're studying media polarization and motivations for voting. They're investigating social anxiety, microaggressions in texting, and the impact gender stereotypes have on how we perceive sexual assault victims. They're probing the pandemic with analyses of the political and economic aspects of COVID-19 responses around the country and of the effect of COVID-related financial stress on marriages.

They're taking on climate change by looking at problems coral reefs have adapting to heat and using a machine-learning algorithm to help deal with water shortages in Southern California. Two brothers from Brentwood took a deep dive into Long Island's salt marshes, so important to the region's ecological health and to needed protection from rising seas.

And they're delving into medical conditions that have plagued humanity, from cancer to Parkinson's disease, epilepsy, Alzheimer's disease, leukemia, and traumatic brain injury.

Some projects stimulate the imagination, like one from Lindsay Fabricant of Roslyn High School: "The Construction and Simulation of a Four-Finger Soft Robotic Gripper."

Many baffle, in a good way, the way that requires one to make frequent referrals to a dictionary. Like the project by Sabrina Chen of Syosset High School titled, "Negative charges at T168, S169, and/or S170 of ECM11 promote wild-type meiotic progression and synapsis in meiotic Saccharomyces cerevisiae cells."

I'm still trying to figure it out.

Some of these students will continue to pursue these projects, or their offshoots, in college and beyond. Others will find other areas of inquiry, equally stimulating and impactful. And still others will go on to other unrelated things. And that's OK, that's called life. But all of them will retain from this experience some things that really matter, the things that all of us would benefit from by learning, or relearning them.

The realization that knowledge is accumulated as part of a journey. That there is joy in the pursuit itself. That hard work might have a payoff at the end but also is its own reward. That adding to the body of human understanding is deeply satisfying, and helping the human condition is deeply nourishing. That mentors are critical to our development, and that we should pass that on by helping others along their journeys.

There are other steps remaining for these semifinalists, but the most difficult ones have already been taken.

We should give them a parade. Not just these 49 teens but the hundreds of other students who participated in the Regeneron search, and all of the others pushing themselves in myriad math and science competitions and excelling in music performances and other arts.

In celebrating them, we also celebrate the entire ecosystem that helps produce such accomplishment. The schools, the teachers, the mentors, the families, the peers, the role models.

And we also celebrate our future, one that grows a little brighter with what they do.

Columnist Michael Dobie's opinions are his own.

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