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Regeneron scholars are essential scientists

Regeneron semifinalist Julia Levine, 17, poses for a

Regeneron semifinalist Julia Levine, 17, poses for a portrait at JFK High School in Bellmore on Jan. 7. Credit: Barry Sloan

What a fitting year for Long Island to boast so many award-winning young scientists.

More than 40 Long Island high schoolers were announced as Regeneron Science Talent Search scholars earlier this month, a bumper crop even in a region whose school districts often reach similar heights.

These talented students were among the top 300 scholars identified by the prestigious science and math competition, whose finalists will be announced later this week. Their projects dove into all corners of human knowledge, experience and curiosity, from Parkinson’s disease to the connection between diet and cancer, disparities in student discipline, and even the coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic provided unique challenges for the high school seniors. They had to meet their advisers over Zoom and work out complex challenges by phone. It was no longer possible to share space in fully outfitted laboratories or do the kind of in-person mentoring that makes even difficult concepts understandable with time.

"I had to build a lab in my basement," Julia Levine, 17, told Newsday. The John F. Kennedy High School student needed a type of insect for her research that had to be special-ordered Levine’s way.

Semir Beyaz, a principal investigator at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and mentor of Jericho High School’s Vyom Shah, 17, said one complication was getting his mentee access to computer servers. But Beyaz says the scholar was able to nimbly troubleshoot, "also an essential part of becoming a scientist."

That’s a good lesson for science and for living this year.

The importance of good science and able scientists has been thrown into stark relief by the pandemic. We know the value of dedicated professionals and investigators — including those right here in Long Island’s research facilities — who are contributing to the unprecedented development of multiple vaccines against COVID-19.

That kind of achievement takes political and economic support, brilliance, and hardworking practitioners to get the science right. The Regeneron Science Talent Search, nee Westinghouse and dating to 1942, has alumni who are capable of those kinds of breakthroughs — 13 Nobel Prize and 2 Fields Medals winners — as well as many other scientists whose work is essential even if their names are less known.

We know that the Regeneron scholars and all the budding scientists in Long Island classrooms will be part of future discoveries and miracles.

We also know that they will be crucial ambassadors for science to the public at large, carrying messages of shared facts and the value of trust in the scientific process, working with all the tools of technology and experimentation to make the world a better and more understandable place.

— The editorial board

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