What Do the Irish Potato Famine, Vaping and X Chromosomes Have in Common?

By Maya Ajmera, President and CEO, Society for Science & the Public and Publisher of Science News, 1985 Science Talent Search Alum

Benjy Firester (center), 18, of New York City, won first place and $250,000 in Regeneron Science Talent Search 2018, founded and produced by Society for Science & the Public. Isani Singh (left), 18, of Aurora, Colorado, was awarded third place and $150,000, and Natalia Orlovsky (right), 18, of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, was awarded second place and $175,000. Photo Credit: Chris Ayers/Society for Science & the Public

Last month, we cheered on and marveled at the skill of our nation’s very best athletes who were chosen to compete in PyeongChang. We were awed not only by their physical prowess, but by the countless hours of training and dedication they’ve invested in honing their craft and the sheer mental stamina required to compete at such a high level.

Today, I invite you to join all of us at Society for Science & the Public and Regeneron in celebrating another group of our nation’s finest: the top winners of the Regeneron Science Talent Search 2018. Like top athletes, these winners — and all 1,818 entrants to the competition — have made remarkable commitments and sacrifices getting to this point. Many taught themselves advanced math and science; some were inspired by experiences with illness or injury of their families and close friends. They’ve tracked down mentors at top institutions, woken up early and stayed up late to complete their research while attending school, and never let a crashed computer or damaged data stand in the way of their scientific curiosity and search for solutions to the world’s most intractable challenges. We are enormously proud to reward their hard work and determination. Congratulations to all of you!

First place winner Benjy Firester presenting his research at the Regeneron Science Talent Search 2018 public exhibition of projects (left) and working in the lab (right).

This year, Benjy Firester, 18, of New York City, took home the top award of $250,000 for creating a mathematical model that predicts the spread of “late blight” fungus, the agricultural culprit behind the Irish Potato Famine that still plagues crops today and causes billions of dollars in damage each year. In the future, his research may help farmers reduce the preemptive use of fungicide. Benjy is an accomplished pianist who has performed at Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center.

Second place winner Natalia Orlovsky (left) and presenting her research at the Regeneron Science Talent Search 2018 public exhibition of projects (right).

Second place honors and $175,000 went to Natalia Orlovsky, 18, of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Concerned about the health impacts of vaping on young people, Natalia set out to determine how lung cells respond to the fluids in e-cigarettes and found that certain fluids produce a stress response, a valuable contribution to a field that requires further scientific study. Natalia is an avid archer, writer and volunteer at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Third place winner Isani Singh working in the lab (left) and hiking (right).

Isani Singh, 18, of Aurora, Colorado, earned third place and $150,000 for her work studying Turner Syndrome, a chromosomal condition affecting women in which the second X chromosome is missing. Turner Syndrome affects as many as 1 in 2,000 women, and Isani’s work could help make strides toward earlier diagnosis and better preparation for patients and doctors. Isani is passionate about advocating for women in STEM, and founded the Denver Math Club to inspire female mathematicians.

By celebrating these young innovators, we hope the next generation will recognize that science is a means of creating a better world. As the oldest and most prestigious science and math competition for U.S. high school seniors, the Regeneron Science Talent Search empowers and awards our brightest young scientists with the goal of identifying, exciting and inspiring the next generation of scientific leaders who will someday change — and shape — the future of STEM and our country.

We see the Regeneron Science Talent Search scholars, finalists and top winners as young role models who will amaze and motivate kids to pursue their STEM interests. Some of this year’s other winning projects include an investigation into the environmental impact of a mass bee death, the discovery of a new compound that could improve rechargeable battery technology and a “smart” microwave that can heat foods on the same plate to different temperatures. Above all, these students display an innate curiosity about the world around them and the drive to figure it all out — and solve problems — through science.

The Regeneron Science Talent Search 2018 finalists present their research to the public at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., on March 11, 2018.

It’s easy to draw inspiration from the ranks of the competition’s alumni, as many students who participated in the Science Talent Search have gone on to esteemed careers as scientists, mathematicians and teachers. Past participants include 13 Nobel Prize winners, 11 National Medals of Science recipients, two Fields Medals winners, 18 MacArthur Foundation Fellows and five Breakthrough Prize winners. Also among our alums is a former Science Talent Search participant who inspired young people both as a scientist and as an Olympian: 2004 finalist Maria Michta went on to compete in not one, but two, summer Olympics in the 20-kilometer Race Walk and also earn a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences.

The Regeneron Science Talent Search 2018 finalists at Capitol Hill.

The winners of the Regeneron Science Talent Search demonstrate just a small cross section of the skill, drive and promise of our country’s young people, and it is crucial that we prioritize STEM in the classroom and beyond. The next generation of STEM leaders will look to this year’s Regeneron Science Talent Search winners as their heroes, and we must ensure they receive the “star” treatment our society offers to its finest athletes and actors. These students are the best of what our country has to offer in science and math, but they cannot take the next step in their journeys without the support of our nation’s leaders or without ours — their supporters, families, friends and fellow citizens.

Once again, congratulations to the top winners of the Regeneron Science Talent Search 2018. Your skill, commitment and belief in the power of science inspire us.

For more information on the Regeneron Science Talent Search 2018 winners, visit here and learn more about their projects at https://student.societyforscience.org/regeneron-sts-2018-top-ten.

For the latest on Regeneron Science Talent Search news, visit https://student.societyforscience.org/regeneron-sts, and follow us on Medium, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat (Society4Science).

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