High-school brain researcher takes home $250,000 prize | Science News for Students

High-school brain researcher takes home $250,000 prize

Young scientists win big for brain research, math and analyzing computer networks
Mar 15, 2017 — 1:04 pm EST
STS 2017 winners

Indrani Das, center, won top prize in the Regeneron Science Talent Search. Aaron Yeiser (right) won second place and Arjun Ramani (left) took third place.

Chris Ayer/SSP

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Some teens might encounter a tough scientific problem and turn to adults for the answer. But all three top winners of this year’s Regeneron Science Talent Search saw hard problems and confronted them head-on. One fought the effects of brain injury. Another took on a new kind of math. A third found a speedy way to find connections between large groups — like someone’s large group of friends on Facebook. 

Indrani Das, 17, took home the $250,000 first prize. Aaron Yeiser, 18, claimed second place and $175,000. Arjun Ramani, 18, was awarded $150,000 for third place.

“Talent is a wonderful thing. And you must have had a lot of it,” Angela Duckworth told the finalists at a gala award ceremony on March 14 at the National Building Museum. Duckworth, the evening's keynote speaker, is a psychologist (someone who studies the mind) at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She has also authored Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. Talent isn’t enough to get to the Science Talent Search, she noted. Duckworth said the finalists also must have grit. By that she meant they must have been “passionate about what they do and extraordinarily persevering.” 

“Our finalists’ hard work and dedication have certainly translated into something special,” says Maya Ajmera. She is president and chief executive officer of Society for Science & the Public, which runs the competition. (The non-profit society also publishes Science News and Science News for Students.)

This year’s finalists are “exceptional young people,” Ajmera says. And, she proclaimed, they stand “poised to be the leaders of our scientific community.”

Society for Science & the Public created the annual Science Talent Search in 1942. Open to U.S. high school seniors, this competition brings 40 finalists to Washington, D.C., each year to show off their research. Regeneron — a company that develops and produces medicines for diseases such as asthma and cancer — became the competition’s sponsor last year. This year, Regeneron handed out prizes to the finalists totaling almost $2 million. Each finalist took home at least $25,000.

Helping injured brains heal themselves

Indrani is a senior at the Academy for Medical Science Technology in Hackensack, N.J. Three years ago, she discussed possible research projects with her research mentor and science teacher, Donna Leonardi. Indrani was looking for a medical challenge. “I wanted to work on something that was not curable,” she recalls.

Indrani neurons
In the top two pictures, healthy brain cells are growing on astrocytes. They have long dendrites connecting to other neurons. This is a sign the neurons are healthy. In the bottom two pictures, the neurons are showing signs of injury. The tiny spines they use to connect to other brain cells are retracting as the cells begin to die.
I. Das

Leonardi mentioned having a friend with a deadly disease that kills brain cells. That story inspired Indrani to probe what makes injured brain cells die.

When a brain is injured, some of its cells — called neurons — can die. Support cells called astrocytes (AS-troh-sites) move in and surround the injured neurons. Those astrocytes should protect the injured cells from further damage. But sometimes, they actually make the situation worse. If they fail to clean up chemical trash from synapses (Sin-AP-sees) — areas between the injured cells — the leftover debris can poison the neurons. This can increase their death toll.

Glutamate (GLU-tah-mayt) is an important molecule that carries signals between brain cells. During injury, though, it can build up outside of neurons, killing them. Clearing it from the synapses might prevent nerve cells from dying, the teen reasoned. So she set out to find a way to do that.

She focused on a molecule that usually serves as a glutamate-grabbing vacuum. It’s known as EAAT2 (for excitatory amino acid transporter 2). Those glutamate vacuums normally reside on the outside edge of an astrocyte. But when these cells sense a nearby injury, they tuck their EEAT2 structures inside the cell. This lets glutamate build up outside, wreaking havoc.

Indrani Das
Indrani Das (center) describes her research at the Regeneron Science Talent Search competition.
C. Ayers Photography

Working in the cell biology lab in her high school, Indrani added a tiny gene to those astrocytes. It produced a molecule that prompted the cells to shift their glutamate vacuums back to the outside of the cells. Now the astrocytes again sucked up glutamate, helping nearby neurons recover.

Indrani hopes that her research will help scientists focus on astrocytes as a target to fight brain injury and disease. And she’s already contributing in her own way. The teen is an EMT, or emergency medical technician. “It’s is my favorite activity of all time,” she says.

Making math meaningful

Aaron has always liked math. But this senior at Perkiomen Valley High School in Collegeville, Pa., notes that he also wanted to tackle “something that will be useful to other people." And his project might do just that. For instance, it might be used to help design a better airplane wing.

The teen applied his skills to a type of math called partial differential equations. These are mathematical expressions that compare two things — with two rates of change — to each other. For example, as a plane flies, its speed changes. At the same time, the speed of the air hitting its wings also changes.

Aaron Yeiser

Aaron Yeiser demonstrates a model of his math project on Public Day at the Regeneron Science Talent Search .
C. Ayers Photography

Normally, relating these two speeds to each other takes a long time. In this case, mathematicians might try to solve the problem by representing the areas involved (on the wing and in the air) as small triangles. “You break the big problem in to lots of little sub-problems,” Aaron explains. Each sub-problem (triangle) must be solved separately. And if those triangles get too narrow, they also become less accurate.

By working with mathematician Alex Townsend at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., the teen found that four-sided shapes — such as rhombuses or trapezoids — worked better than triangles to analyze the problem. This way, the math was still accurate and Aaron could arrive at a solution more quickly.

Third-place winner, Arjun, attends West Lafayette Junior-Senior High School in Indiana. He has always loved patterns and tries “to make connections between seemingly unconnected areas.”

He decided to study very large patterns, which can be found in huge data sets, such as the number of molecules in the human body or the number of someone’s Facebook friends.

When dealing with huge sets of things, how do you identify which item is connected to some other one? Working with David Gleich, a computer scientist at nearby Purdue University, Arjun used a method based on Kronecker graphs. These graphs can generate random connections — or networks — between data points in some large set.

Arjun Ramani
Arjun Ramani shows off his research findings to the public.
C. Ayers Photography

When forming a Kronecker graph, if Arjun had picked connections at random, he might by accident choose the same connection twice. And that would waste time. Instead, Arjun used math to lay out all of the potential connections in a line. He then selected connections, randomly, as he moved in one direction down that line. This kept him from picking the same one twice, allowing him to generate a graph slightly faster than before.

Arjun says he likes doing research for the same reason he loves to debate: He loves digging deeply into an idea. The teen hopes to compare his random networks to data in the real world, such as the connections between people on Facebook. “If I can find a network and a pattern [on Facebook], I could target ads there,” he says. Or, if he found a connection between proteins, it might one day help identify a harmful change that could lead to cancer.

Superstars of science

The fourth-place winner, Byron Xu, 17, took home $100,000. A senior at William P. Clements High School in Sugar Land, Texas, he used sound waves to determine ocean temperatures. His method is easier and faster than current methods that depend on sensors in the water, he says. It could be used to show how ocean temperatures have changed over time.

Archana Verma, 17, was awarded $90,000 for fifth place. She studied how chemical dyes absorb energy. The teen hopes to use such dyes to make windows that efficiently generate electricity from some of the sunlight hitting them. A senior at Jericho High School in New York, Archana published a paper based on her findings March 7 in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters

Laura Catherine Pierson, 17, at the College Preparatory School in Oakland, Calif., came in sixth place, winning $80,000. She developed new ways to study groups of numbers or objects. The seventh-place prize, $70,000, went to Prathik Naidu, 18, of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va. Prathik designed a computer program that looks for changes in genes that might lead to cancer.

Eighth place and $60,000 went to Ethan Joseph Novek, 18, of Greenwich High School in Connecticut. He designed a chemical process to capture carbon-dioxide gas. It’s a pollutant released by burning. His system saves 75 percent of the energy typically used to capture CO2.

Vrinda Madan, 17, took home the ninth-place prize of $50,000. This Lake Highland Preparatory School student in Orlando, Fla., found new drugs that might one day treat malaria. Stefan Wan, 17, took home the 10th-place prize of $40,000. A senior at Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach, Fla., he designed a method to suck up and reuse excess fertilizer that runs off of farms.

The remaining 30 finalists each received $25,000. All winners also received an all-expenses paid trip to Washington, D.C. On March 12, the 40 finalists presented their research to the public at the National Geographic Society. They also visited the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Ashburn, Va.

“The Science Talent Search can help restore science to its rightful place,” said George Yancopoulos, one of the founders of Regeneron. To the finalists he said, “You’re all winners. You’re all our heroes. We are counting on you and many other bright young minds of your generation to save the world.”

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

asthma     A disease affecting the body’s airways, which are the tubes through which animals breathe. Asthma obstructs these airways through swelling, the production of too much mucus or a tightening of the tubes. As a result, the body can expand to breathe in air, but loses the ability to exhale appropriately. The most common cause of asthma is an allergy. It is a leading cause of hospitalization and the leading chronic disease responsible for kids missing school.

astrocyte     A type of non-nerve cell found in the brain.

cancer     Any of more than 100 different diseases, each characterized by the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. The development and growth of cancers, also known as malignancies, can lead to tumors, pain and death.

carbon     The chemical element having the atomic number 6. It is the physical basis of all life on Earth. Carbon exists freely as graphite and diamond. It is an important part of coal, limestone and petroleum, and is capable of self-bonding, chemically, to form an enormous number of chemically, biologically and commercially important molecules.

carbon dioxide     (or CO2) A colorless, odorless gas produced by all animals when the oxygen they inhale reacts with the carbon-rich foods that they’ve eaten. Carbon dioxide also is released when organic matter burns (including fossil fuels such as oil or gas). Carbon dioxide acts as a greenhouse gas, trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere. Plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen during photosynthesis, the process they use to make their own food.

cell     The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the unaided eye, it consists of a watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall. Depending on their size, animals are made of anywhere from thousands to trillions of cells. Some organisms, such as yeasts, molds, bacteria and some algae, are composed of only one cell.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical can also be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

chemistry     The field of science that deals with the composition, structure and properties of substances and how they interact. Chemists use this knowledge to study unfamiliar substances, to reproduce large quantities of useful substances or to design and create new and useful substances. (about compounds) Chemistry also is used as a term to refer to the recipe of a compound, the way it’s produced or some of its properties. People who work in this field are known as chemists.

computer program     A set of instructions that a computer uses to perform some analysis or computation. The writing of these instructions is known as computer programming.

data     Facts and/or statistics collected together for analysis but not necessarily organized in a way that gives them meaning. For digital information (the type stored by computers), those data typically are numbers stored in a binary code, portrayed as strings of zeros and ones.

dendrite    Projection from a neuron that is involved in receiving chemical signals from neighboring cells.

differential equations    An area of math that relates two physical things and their rates of change to each other. For example, a plane wing moving through air on a windy day could be represented by a differential equation.

emergency medical technician     (abbr. EMT) A heath care provider who serves in times of emergency. They are not doctors or nurses. They are trained to respond quickly to emergency situations to aid a patient until a doctor or nurse can see them. They often work in ambulances and are sometimes called paramedics.

equation     In mathematics, the statement that two quantities are equal. In geometry, equations are often used to determine the shape of a curve or surface.

fertilizer     Nitrogen, phosphorus and other plant nutrients added to soil, water or foliage to boost crop growth or to replenish nutrients that removed earlier by plant roots or leaves.

gene     (adj. genetic) A segment of DNA that codes, or holds instructions, for a cell’s production of a protein. Offspring inherit genes from their parents. Genes influence how an organism looks and behaves.

glutamate     A salt of glutamic acid. Glutamate plays an important role in the brain as a molecule that carries signals between cells.

high school     A designation for grades nine through 12 in the U.S. system of compulsory public education. High-school graduates may apply to colleges for further, advanced education.

journal     (in science) A publication in which scientists share their research findings with the public. Some journals publish papers from all fields of science, technology, engineering and math, while others are specific to a single subject. The best journals are peer-reviewed: They send all submitted articles to outside experts to be read and critiqued. The goal, here, is to prevent the publication of mistakes, fraud or sloppy work.

malaria     A disease caused by a parasite that invades the red blood cells. The parasite is transmitted by mosquitoes, largely in tropical and subtropical regions.

mentor     An individual who lends his or her experience to advise someone starting out in a field. In science, teachers or researchers often mentor students or younger scientists by helping them to refine their research questions. Mentors also can offer feedback on how young investigators prepare to conduct research or interpret their data.

molecule     An electrically neutral group of atoms that represents the smallest possible amount of a chemical compound. Molecules can be made of single types of atoms or of different types. For example, the oxygen in the air is made of two oxygen atoms (O2), but water is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (H2O).

National Institutes of Health     (or NIH) This is the largest biomedical research organization in the world. A part of the U.S. government, it consists of 21 separate institutes — such as the National Cancer Institute and the National Human Genome Research Institute — and six additional centers. Most are located on a 300 acre facility in Bethesda, Md., a campus containing 75 buildings. The institutes employ nearly 6,000 scientists and provide research funding to more than 300,000 additional researchers working at more than 2,500 other institutions around the world.

network     A group of interconnected people or things.

neuron     An impulse-conducting cell. Such cells are found in the brain, spinal column and nervous system.

physical     (adj.) A term for things that exist in the real world, as opposed to in memories or the imagination. It can also refer to properties of materials that are due to their size and non-chemical interactions (such as when one block slams with force into another).

physical chemistry     The area of chemistry that uses the techniques and theories of physics to study chemical systems. A scientist who works in that field is known as a physical chemist.

protein     Compound made from one or more long chains of amino acids. Proteins are an essential part of all living organisms. They form the basis of living cells, muscle and tissues; they also do the work inside of cells. The hemoglobin in blood and the antibodies that attempt to fight infections are among the better-known, stand-alone proteins. Medicines frequently work by latching onto proteins.

random     Something that occurs haphazardly or without reason, based on no intention or purpose.

rhombus     A four-sided, diamond-shaped geometric configuration.

Science Talent Search     An annual competition created and run by Society for Science & the Public. Begun in 1942, this event brings 40 research-oriented high school seniors to Washington, D.C. each year to showcase their research to the public and to compete for awards. Since spring 2016, this competition has been sponsored by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals.

sensor     A device that picks up information on physical or chemical conditions — such as temperature, barometric pressure, salinity, humidity, pH, light intensity or radiation — and stores or broadcasts that information. Scientists and engineers often rely on sensors to inform them of conditions that may change over time or that exist far from where a researcher can measure them directly. (in biology) The structure that an organism uses to sense attributes of its environment, such as heat, winds, chemicals, moisture, trauma or an attack by predators.

Society for Science and the Public    A nonprofit organization created in 1921 and based in Washington, D.C. Since its founding, SSP has been not only promoting public engagement in scientific research but also the public understanding of science. It created and continues to run three renowned science competitions: the Regeneron Science Talent Search (begun in 1942), the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (initially launched in 1950) and Broadcom MASTERS (created in 2010). SSP also publishes award-winning journalism: in Science News (launched in 1922) and Science News for Students (created in 2003). Those magazines also host a series of blogs (including Eureka! Lab).

sound wave     A wave that transmits sound. Sound waves have alternating swaths of high and low pressure.

synapse     The junction between neurons that transmits chemical and electrical signals.

technology     The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.

Texas     The second largest state in the United States, located along the southern border with Mexico. It is about 1,270 kilometers (790 miles) long and covers an area of 696,000 square kilometers (268,581 square miles).

trapezoid     A four-sided geometric figure with only one pair of parallel sides.