Amber Luo at the finals of the Regeneron science competition...

Amber Luo at the finals of the Regeneron science competition in Washington.

Credit: Amber Luo

I remember the exact moment — Jan. 20 at noon — when the Regeneron Science Talent Search finalists were announced. I was sitting in my AP Spanish class, nervously refreshing the Society for Science website while trying to look like I was recording a conversation in Spanish. When the names were released and I was among them, I stopped pretending and started sobbing.

The next weeks were a blur of oh-my-god-I-don’t-have-a-gala-dress and please-help-judging-sounds-so-scary and — as I marked off the days on my calendar — I. Am. So. Excited. Excited to compete, collaborate, and share my story. Excited to wear a huge, strapless red gown. Excited to meet innovative, passionate, cool people.

My journey to the finals began as I was growing up in Texas and learning to love mathematics. In middle school, I enjoyed reading math textbooks. Each chapter was like walking through a different land and learning something you didn’t even know existed. Every summer starting in sixth grade, I’d go to math camps around the nation, meeting like-minded friends who loved math as much as I did.

But the idea of conducting research — of actively exploring mathematics, rather than sightseeing — never crossed my mind. Research had always been something distant, a world far removed from my own.

My mindset began to change after I moved to Long Island for ninth grade, entered Ward Melville High School, and discovered its Science Olympiad program. I learned I could use math’s gifts to unravel biology’s complexities, a new adventure that took off when I had the opportunity to virtually attend MIT’s Research Science Institute last summer.

There, I learned what every scientist must learn — how to ask your own questions, come up with your own ideas, and seek your own answers. I learned to interpret others' writings not as works of incomprehensible depth, but as building blocks for my own ideas. RSI gave me intellectual freedom — the freedom to tinker, to indulge in whatever directions my mind wanted to go, to not just solve the problem in front of me but to bring something impactful and useful to life. That captivated me.

Entering the Regeneron competition was the next logical step. During RSI, I collaborated with University of Texas professor Can Cenik to create new software that uses mathematical techniques to identify key molecular changes that occur in protein synthesis during disease, enabling doctors to develop more effective drugs and therapies. I was excited to share my research and my story with a wider audience through Regeneron.

When I finished third, I was happy and relieved — and a little numb.

But the best part of finals week in Washington — the part I will remember forever — was the people.

We debated the optimal way to board the single working elevator in the St. Regis hotel. We conducted dinner-table dissections of our favorite judging problems. We shared laughs with judges over the headaches of RNA sequencing.

It was thrilling to be with all of these people who were at the top of their fields but not necessarily doing the same thing as me. I did not quite understand what they were doing and they did not quite understand what I was doing, but we bonded over our shared passion of discovery.

That was the drive that brought us together and the drive I expect to propel my entire life — the tingling excitement of a new idea, the table-banging moment of understanding, and the pure joy of exploration.

This guest essay reflects the views of Amber Luo, a senior at Ward Melville High School and the third-place winner of the Regeneron science competition.

This guest essay reflects the views of Amber Luo, a senior a Ward Melville High School and the third-place winner of the Regeneron science competition.