Teens win big prizes for research on potato killer, vaping and a rare disease | Science News for Students

Teens win big prizes for research on potato killer, vaping and a rare disease

Awards handed out at the 2018 Regeneron Science Talent Search total more than $2 million
Mar 13, 2018 — 10:58 pm EST
STS 2018 winners
Benjamin Firester (center), Natalia Orlovsky (right) and Isani Singh (left) took home the first, second and third prizes, respectively, in the 2018 Regeneron Science Talent Search.
Chris Ayers Photography/SSP

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Some teens might say they’re going to tackle big problems “when they grow up.” But the three top winners of the 2018 Regeneron Science Talent Search didn’t see any need to wait. One wanted to prevent the spread of a potato-slaying fungus. Another studied the potential harms of vaping. And a third found new ways to predict how a rare disease might affect the women who suffer from it. 

First-place winner Benjamin Firester, 18, took home a $250,000 prize. Natalia Orlovsky, 18, picked up $175,000 for second place, and Isani Singh, 18, received the third-place prize of $150,000.

"[The students] will not only make the world a better place by applying their creativity and dedication to solve the many intractable problems we face today, the finalists will go on to conduct basic and applied research at universities and companies throughout our nation," says Maya Ajmera. "And because of the finalists...I feel so hopeful." Ajmera is president and chief executive officer of Society for Science & the Public, which created the Science Talent Search in 1942 and still runs the competition. (The nonprofit society also publishes Science News and Science News for Students.)

The Science Talent Search is sponsored by Regeneron. It’s a company that develops medicine for diseases such as cancer and asthma. Each year, the Science Talent Search brings 40 high school seniors from around the country here, to Washington, D.C. They show off their science projects to the public, spend hours before a panel of judges and compete for more than $2 million in prizes.

Big projects, big results

Benjamin Firester is a senior at Hunter College High School in New York City, N.Y. While looking for a research project, he recalls, “I wanted to do a project where I could apply math … in a way that would directly have an effect on people.” Benjamin focused on potato blight. This fungus, Phytophthora infestans, infects potatoes and tomatoes. It is most famous for causing the Irish Potato Famine. The loss of potato crops in the 1840s caused a million people in Ireland to starve to death. Today, that fungus still causes plenty of misery.

Benjamin used his math skills to create a computer model of where spores of this fungus might spread. Based on winds and the current location of the fungus, Benjamin was able to predict which nearby farms were at risk. With early warning, he says, “You can snuff out the disease and prevent it from spreading.” He hopes such data will also help farmers know where to use chemicals that kill the fungus so will need to apply less of these harmful chemicals.

Natalia Orlovsky is a senior at Garnet Valley High School in Glen Mills, Penn. She was shocked to learn that electronic cigarettes were being marketed to kids and teens. E-cigs are promoted as being safer than smoking tobacco. She wondered, though, whether they were actually safe.

Benjamin Firester
Benjamin Firester works in the lab on his mathematical model, trying to prevent potato blight without having to change the potatoes.
B. Firester

To find out, she tested the effects of e-cig liquids on cells. She worked on bacteria and human cells in Petri dishes. She also tested nicotine — an addictive chemical in cigarettes and some e-cigarettes. The teen found that the e-cig liquid itself caused cells to produce chemicals associated with stress. That was true even when there was no nicotine present. While this research was only done in cells, not people, she notes, “I think the fact that it could apply to people is reason to do more research.” Vaping may indeed be safer than cigarettes, but that doesn’t mean its harmless. “I think more information could help people make informed decisions,” she says,

Isani Singh looked for a project that would blend her love of math with her love of biology. The senior at Cherry Creek High School in Greenwood Village, Colo., studied Turner Syndrome. This is a rare disease in which a woman is missing part or all of her X chromosome. Chromosomes are thread-like pieces of coiled DNA that contain a cell’s instructions. Females usually have two X chromosomes, but in Turner syndrome, all or some of one of these is missing.

Isani developed a test to hunt down X chromosomes in human embryos to find out if any were missing. She also pinpointed specific genes — which instruct cells on what to do — that were less active in women with Turner Syndrome. She hopes that her work will help treat some of the symptoms that women with this condition suffer. Isani feels a deep emotional connection to this work after meeting women with the disease at a conference. “It’s harder to give up” on the research, she says, “when you know who [the patients] are.”

Not your average science fair

Winning the Regeneron Science Talent Search is about more than having the greatest science project. “It’s not just the best research,” says Alison Hewlett Stifel. She’s the competition’s director. The judges, she says, “are looking for scientific promise, for leadership in the scientific community long-term.”

The application itself is its own test. “It’s a really long application,” says Natalia. “I think it was longer than the college applications I did!”

First, the teens have to summarize their research in a paper that can be up to 20 pages long. Then there are essays asking about a student’s goals and which world problems they would like to solve. The application also asks about the teens’ outside interests. Do they play an instrument? Are they volunteering somewhere? Finally, there are the usual application items, such as grades and letters of recommendation.

The completed applications (1,800 this year) go to a group of 100 scientists in various areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). They narrow the field of candidates to the top 300. Society for Science & the Public then invites the top 40 of these to Washington.

Each of these finalists goes through a grueling process. They face a panel of 15 judges, experts across a range of STEM fields. In one set of interviews, the students get tested on general scientific concepts. They are asked to think through complex problems, using the science they already know and their own creativity. “If it wasn’t for the pressure, it’d be enjoyable,” says Isani. “The questions are fascinating things people should be thinking about, like ‘why is the sky blue?’ Things you should think about, but usually don’t.”

Natalia Orlovsky
Natalia Orlovsky presents her research on vaping.
N. Orlovsky

The questions require knowledge about scientific concepts, notes Sudarshan Chawathe, but “it’s not something you can study for on weekends.” Chawathe chaired the judging panel for this year’s competition. He studies computer science at the University of Maine in Orono. Preparation for this competition, he says, is about having a broad, long-term interest in science. Being curious about the world and thinking deeply about problems also are necessary.

The general questions were followed by more judging as the teens described their research projects. These are projects the teens have been working on — and thinking about — for months or years. Not surprisingly, “I felt more comfortable with the project interviews,” says Natalia, “though the first stage [of judging] was a lot of fun.”

Science is a team sport

Whether the teens collect data in a few weeks or a few years, none of them do it alone. Some work with a science teacher or research class. But Benjamin, Isani and Natalia needed access to bigger labs.

Benjamin’s family is from Israel. When he looked for a research project, he started by sending his resume to several Israeli science labs. “I got one response,” he says. That was from Lior Blank who studies plant diseases. Blank works at the Agricultural Research Organization’s Volcani Center in Bet Dagan. Benjamin spent two summers working in Blank’s lab. He used the school years in between to analyze his data and write up his findings.

Isani Singh
Isani Singh is seen working in the lab on a way to detect genetic changes in Turner Syndrome. This rare disease affects only women.
I. Singh

Natalia and Isani also searched for scientists to work with. In their cases, though, they attended university summer programs. Those summer experiences provided the data they used in their projects.

Natalia attended the Teen Research and Education in Environmental Sciences program at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. There, she was paired with Jeffrey Field. He’s a pharmacologist — someone who studies how drugs interact with the body.

Isani knew she wanted to work on Turner Syndrome. So she applied to the Research Science Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. At that time, she asked to work with David Page, an MIT scientist who studies Turner Syndrome.

Many Regeneron STS finalists have scientists in their families and support from science teachers who have helped students through the application process before. “You have to have someone who encourages you,” Hewlett Stifel says. “For a lot of people, it’s a teacher; for a lot of these finalists, it’s a parent.”

In Benjamin’s case, it was his sister. Kalia Firester was a 2015 STS finalist. “She’s my biggest role model and biggest supporter,” Benjamin says. “Without her, I couldn’t have done it.”

Teens who apply to the Regeneron STS tend to have more advantages than the average student. Not everyone has access to impressive labs or can get into competitive summer programs. “We need to do a better job of recruiting applicants from more diverse background,” Hewlett Stifel notes. So Society for Science & the Public has started outreach programs to get the word out about this competition and to connect teachers with scientists who might mentor their students. “We want these programs to be long-term successful,” says Hewlett Stifel.

Chawathe hopes that stories of the competition’s winners will inspire other teens to take on research. “The general public doesn’t pay a lot of attention to science,” he says. But when teens doing top research win big prizes, “they make the news,” he notes. And, at least a short while, their wins garner some much-needed positive attention for science.

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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. Asthma is a leading cause of hospitalization and the top chronic disease responsible for kids missing school.

bacteria     (singular: bacterium) Single-celled organisms. These dwell nearly everywhere on Earth, from the bottom of the sea to inside other living organisms (such as plants and animals).

biology     The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.

blight     A devastating disease that affects the growth or survival of plants. The term is sometimes extended to environmental conditions (such as locusts or drought) that can also imperil crops, forests or other valued plants.

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

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. Most 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 also can be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

chromosome     A single threadlike piece of coiled DNA found in a cell’s nucleus. A chromosome is generally X-shaped in animals and plants. Some segments of DNA in a chromosome are genes. Other segments of DNA in a chromosome are landing pads for proteins. The function of other segments of DNA in chromosomes is still not fully understood by scientists.

computer model     A program that runs on a computer that creates a model, or simulation, of a real-world feature, phenomenon or event.

computer science     The scientific study of the principles and use of computers. Scientists who work in this field are known as computer scientists.

DNA     (short for deoxyribonucleic acid) A long, double-stranded and spiral-shaped molecule inside most living cells that carries genetic instructions. It is built on a backbone of phosphorus, oxygen, and carbon atoms. In all living things, from plants and animals to microbes, these instructions tell cells which molecules to make.

e-cigarette     (short for electronic cigarette) Battery-powered device that disperses nicotine and other chemicals as tiny airborne particles that users can inhale. They were originally developed as a safer alternative to cigarettes that users could use as they tried to slowly break their addiction to the nicotine in tobacco products. These devices heat up a flavored liquid until it evaporates, producing vapors. People use these devices are known as vapers.

embryo     The early stages of a developing organism, or animal with a backbone, consisting only one or a few cells. As an adjective, the term would be embryonic — and could be used to refer to the early stages or life of a system or technology.

engineering     The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems.

environmental science     The study of ecosystems to help identify environmental problems and possible solutions. Environmental science can bring together many fields including physics, chemistry, biology and oceanography to understand how ecosystems function and how humans can coexist with them in harmony. People who work in this field are known as environmental scientists.

famine     A condition where many people go hungry because there is too little food. Droughts, flooding and other weather disasters often contribute to widespread crop failures causing famine.

fungus     (plural: fungi) One of a group of single- or multiple-celled organisms that reproduce via spores and feed on living or decaying organic matter. Examples include mold, yeasts and mushrooms.

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.

genetic     Having to do with chromosomes, DNA and the genes contained within DNA. The field of science dealing with these biological instructions is known as genetics. People who work in this field are geneticists.

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.

liquid     A material that flows freely but keeps a constant volume, like water or oil.

marketing     The strategy for getting people to adopt a new policy or buy new products. In many cases, the marketing may rely on advertising or getting celebrities and other trendsetters to endorse a policy or product.

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.

model     A simulation of a real-world event (usually using a computer) that has been developed to predict one or more likely outcomes. Or an individual that is meant to display how something would work in or look on others.

nicotine     A colorless, oily chemical produced in tobacco and certain other plants. It creates the “buzz” associated with smoking. Highly addictive, nicotine is the substance that makes it hard for smokers to give up their use of cigarettes. The chemical is also a poison, sometimes used as a pesticide to kill insects and even some invasive snakes or frogs.

risk     The chance or mathematical likelihood that some bad thing might happen. For instance, exposure to radiation poses a risk of cancer. Or the hazard — or peril — itself. (For instance: Among cancer risks that the people faced were radiation and drinking water tainted with arsenic.)

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.

smoking     A term for the deliberate inhalation of tobacco smoke from burning cigarettes.

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).

spore     A tiny, typically single-celled body that is formed by certain bacteria in response to bad conditions. Or it can be the single-celled reproductive stage of a fungus (functioning much like a seed) that is released and spread by wind or water. Most are protected against drying out or heat and can remain viable for long periods, until conditions are right for their growth.

stress     (in biology) A factor — such as unusual temperatures, movements, moisture or pollution — that affects the health of a species or ecosystem. (in psychology) A mental, physical, emotional or behavioral reaction to an event or circumstance (stressor) that disturbs a person or animal’s usual state of being or places increased demands on a person or animal; psychological stress can be either positive or negative.

symptom     A physical or mental indicator generally regarded to be characteristic of a disease. Sometimes a single symptom — especially a general one, such as fever or pain — can be a sign of any of many different types of injury or disease.

syndrome     Two or more symptoms that together characterize a particular disease, disorder or social condition.

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

vaping     (v. to vape) A slang term for the use of e-cigarettes because these devices emit vapor, not smoke. People who do this are referred to as vapers.

X chromosome     A portion of an animal’s genetic inheritance that appears on a sex chromosome known as “X”. Females will usually have two X-chromosomes; males will typically have both an X- and a Y-chromosome.