LI's Regeneron winners reflect humanity's quest for knowledge
As founts of awe and inspiration, Long Island's young scientists never disappoint.
This month brought announcements of the 300 national semifinalists of the Regeneron Science Talent Search, the nation's most prestigious such competition, and two weeks later, the 40 finalists who will travel to Washington in March for the last stage of the competition. Long Island had 38 of the former and three of the latter, and you can't help but feel a whole lot of good in a whole lot of ways when you contemplate what these high school students have done.
The titles of many of their projects are, as usual, unintelligible to lay folks. But the substance is astounding.
They are working on markers and cures for cancer, more accurate echocardiograms, neurodevelopmental diseases, treatments for autism and toxic dye pollution, ways to keep invasive species out of salt marshes, the effects that class-conscious admissions policies have on the racial diversity of college campuses, and — and I quote — Employing CRISPR Cas9 Editing in Combination With DNA Polymerase to Correct the DELTA F508 Mutation of the Cystic Fibrosis Transmembrane Conductance Regulator Gene in HEK293T Cells. (I know it has something to do with gene editing and a cystic fibrosis mutation, but for more you'll have to ask Dana Kagan of Great Neck South High School.)
These students remind us that part of our nature as humans is to explore, physically and mentally. We are seekers — of new lands, new ideas, and new knowledge.
That's important to remember — for the schools that traditionally turn out Regeneron participants and those that don't. Curiosity is a terrible thing to stifle. It's incumbent on all of us, individuals and school districts, to provide opportunities — like this competition but not limited to that — to allow it to flourish. We never know what will kindle an inquisitive spark in a youngster. Opening up access to knowledge to slake the thirst to learn more is always a good thing.
The unveiling of the finalists was bracketed by other news that provided important context.
Scientists at American, Chinese, and Hong Kong universities announced they had created a tiny robot made of liquid metal microparticles that could be melted and reshaped to move around, under, and through obstacles and steered via magnets like some Terminator-type creature. Such a robot could be used in the future to repair hard-to-reach electronics and, as the scientists showed in one experiment, to remove a harmful foreign object from inside a human stomach.
Another team of researchers elsewhere trained ants to use their incredible sense of smell to detect cancerous tumors, which could have implications for the early detection of the feared disease, a critical factor in successful treatment.
And a group of seismologists reported that the dense center of the Earth known as the inner core spins at varying speeds and even changes the direction of its spin in what appears to be a 70-year cycle — and that one of those changes might be occurring now.
It's heady stuff, like the students' accomplishments are heady stuff, and it reminds you that science exists on a continuum, ever changing, ever developing, ever adding to what we humans know about pretty much everything. Some of today's achievers will be tomorrow's trailblazers, and so we advance as a species. The scholarships they win in the Regeneron contest have obvious value, but the reality that some of them will take their place in this grand quest of ours is priceless.
Many finalists say the best thing about getting there is the chance to meet your peers, share your research, talk about your common love of discovery, and bond over your passion.
They revel in the moment, even as they lay the bricks of our future.
Columnist Michael Dobie's opinions are his own.