Indians in Race for Regeneron Prize

Indians in Race for Regeneron Prize

By Hemalatha

One of the finalists of last year’s Regeneron Science Talent Search, 16 year old Eish Maheshwari, was among the youngest ever finalists of the prestigious contest, because he skipped kindergarten, and instead dove into science as a child when his parents gave him a microscope and other such items as toys.

Maheshwari was born in India, surrounded by relatives who urged him to eat turmeric because of its health properties. His research focused on the drug curcumin, which comes from turmeric. That drug and others can’t be delivered easily because bodies don’t absorb it. He studied using nanoparticles as part of red blood cell-based drug delivery systems. “I loved exploring the world my own way,” Maheshwari said. “It pushed me to use my heritage to inspire me in my research.”

This year, young Indian minds are creating a buzz once again at the Regeneron Science Talent Search conducted by The Society for Science and the Public in the United States. On January 22, when the 2020 scholars were announced, over eight Indian origin children featured in the final list of 40. The finalists will be competing for $1.8 million in awards. The winners will be announced in early March in a gala event which was called by President H. W. Bush as the “Super bowl of Science!”

Earlier in January, the organisers announced a shortlist of 300 scholars from high school for exemplary work in Science and Math in the US. The 300 scholars and their schools will be awarded $2,000 each. There were around 70 Indians in the initial list out of which 8 have been selected for the finals to be held in March.

To be in the elite list of 300 is no mean feat. The contestants are selected from a list of 1,993 applicants from 659 high schools across 49 states, Washington, DC, Puerto Rico, Guam and eight countries. Throughout its 78 years, the criteria for selection in the STS has remained the same: students are chosen from across the nation for their scientific prowess, exceptional research skills, commitment to academics, innovative thinking and overall potential to become future leaders of the scientific community.

It is US’s oldest and the most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors. What Nobel is to the world of academia, Regeneron STS is to the world of high school students.

Alumni of the program have made extraordinary contributions to science and are recipients of over 100 of the world’s most prized honours in science and maths including the Nobel Prize and the National Medal of Science, Mc Arthur Fellowships and numerous other awards.

The Indian finalists have worked in areas that are very diverse and intense. Finalists' projects span a diversity of STEM-related topics including targeting cancer via signaling pathways, developing a mobile application for stroke diagnosis using deep learning and computer vision and identifying an improved method for trace level arsenic quantification in water.

17 year old Jagdeep Bhatia of Watchung Hills Regional High School, Warren, NJ worked on a project titled – “Simple and Fast Algorithms for Interactive Machine Learning with Random Counter-Examples.”

Amogh Bhatnagar, aged 18, of University School of Milwaukee, Milwaukee, WI has worked on Methodology Demonstration of a Cost Effective Comparison of Procedures Using Open and Laparoscopic Appendectomy studying total charges versus hospital stay.

Ankush Dhawan, 18 years, from Signature School, Evansville, IN studied an Improved Method for Trace Level Arsenic Quantification in Water, an issue which recurs terrifyingly in many states of America.

Ankit Gupta, 17, of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Alexandria, VA has worked on StrokeSave: A Novel, High-Performance Mobile Application for Stroke Diagnosis using Deep Learning and Computer Vision. Nithin Kavi, 18, of Acton-Boxborough Regional High School, Acton, MA studied Cutting and Gluing Surfaces

Raina Jain, 17, of Greenwich High School, Greenwich, CT studied Control of Varroa destructor Infestation with a Dual-Function Thymol-Emitting Honey Bee Hive Entrance way. Anushka Jetly, 17, of Friendswood High School, Friendswood, TX studied: An Affordable, Machine Learning-Aided Otologic Diagnostic Suite for Automatic Detection of Middle Ear Abnormalities.

Rohan Wagh of Sunset High School, Portland, OR researched “Designing a Microbial Fuel Cell Based In-Situ Soil Conductivity Monitoring System for Precision Agriculture and Water Management.”

Background

The Regeneron Science Talent Search, a program of Society for Science & the Public was instituted 1942. It has changed labels thrice. The Science Talent Search started with the sponsorship of Westinghouse. Intel took over in 1998. In 2016 Regeneron a leading biotechnology company headquartered in New York, took on the STS. Regeneron was established by STS alumni and a true champion of science; the company has committed 100 million dollars in funding over the next decade.

The labels might have changed but the form remains the same. Society for Science & the Public was set up by Edward W Scripps and William Emerson. In 1942 STS was started to encourage original meaningful research based on science and maths among high school students.

Research proposals submitted by the winners bring the dream of Scripps and Emerson closer to reality. They wanted science to come out of its parochial confines and to become relevant by tackling problems confronting humanity. Every year the finalists have attempted to tackle compelling issues such as fighting cancer and other life-threatening diseases, combating climate change and protecting the environment, cyber security and the list goes on…

Recognising the contribution of 40 finalists of 2019, Maya Ajmera, President and CEO of Society for Science & the Public, noted, in a press communique, that they “are helping to advance solutions to some of our world’s most intractable challenges”.

The Indian Americans appeared on the esteemed list rather late. The first-generation Indians were still settling in the US. From 1970’s Indian Americans start appearing on the list, some as finalists and a few in top ten. Chetan Nayak is the winner in 1988.

The new millennium saw a dramatic shift. The millennials were making up for the presence felt. Shivani Sud, a winner in 2008, Indrani Das winner in 2017, Adam Ardeishar third prize winner in 2019.

Indrani Das, an Indian American won the top prize for exploring how brain damage occurs, examining a process called astrogliosis, which can lead to the excess production of a toxin that can damage neurons, reported The Washington Post.

Ardeishar, 17, of Alexandria, Virginia, won the third prize for his project combining a classic previously unsolved math problem called the “coupon collector problem” with extreme value theory. The theory is used to determine the likelihood of a maximal event, such as a 1,000-year flood. By integrating these two concepts, Adam developed a way to calculate the average maximum values of distributional datasets, which could be applied to predicting the expected amount of time for a given number of different randomly-timed events to occur.

Even as these kids battle it out for the top prize, another Indian is set to head America's prestigious National Science Foundation. Indian American computer scientist Sethuraman Panchanathan will head the US government agency that supports fundamental research and education in all the non-medical fields of science and engineering. Its medical counterpart is the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Panchanathan, 58, will succeed France Cordova when her six-year term as the NSF Director ends in 2020. NSF Director is a Senate-confirmed position.