Students have won $1.8 million for outstanding science projects at the oldest and most prestigious science competition in the United States for high school seniors.

The winner wanted to apply math in a way that can help people — and he did. Image credits: ZooFari / Wikipedia.

Each year, about 1,800 papers are submitted at the Regeneron Science Talent Search (previously known as the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, and then as the Intel Science Talent Search). Out of these papers, one belonged to Benjamin “Benjy” Firester. Benjy wanted to use math in a way that can directly benefit people, ending up with an unlikely focus: the potato.

Benjy developed a computer model that predicts how weather patterns are likely to spread the spores of the late blight fungus (Phytophthora infestans), which causes billions of dollars in potato and tomato crop damages every year. The microorganism is also responsible for tragic events such as the Irish Potato Famine.

Benjy’s program used data from farmers (such as blight location) and weather reports of the region (including humidity and wind direction) to predict where the blight is likely to spread. Farmers could use this data to assess blight risk and use or reduce preemptive fungicide accordingly.

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His project titled “Modeling the Spatio-Temporal Dynamics of Phytophthora infestans on a Regional Scale,” could one day save farmers a lot of time and money — and save a lot of food in the process.

“Benjy’s project melds several different STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields” said Sudarshan Chawathe, chair of the judging panel. “His use of existing data to make predictions is innovative, and we are impressed by Benjy’s long-term commitment to his research.”

Of course, Benjy wasn’t the only prodigy in the competition. Coming in second place and winning $175,000, Natalia Orlovsky, 18, examined the response of lung cells to vaping. She was shocked to learn that these electronic cigarettes are marketed specifically at teens, branded as a safe alternative to cigarettes. While vaping is less damaging than smoking, it’s still not safe. Natalia used human cells cultured in Petri dishes to study this effect and found that e-cig liquid itself caused cells to produce chemicals associated with stress. She also studied the effect of nicotine, finding that vaping stresses human cells even when no nicotine is present.

Third place $150,000 were awarded to Isani Singh, 18, for her work on women with Turner Syndrome, a genetic abnormality that affects development in females, in which the second sex chromosome is missing. Adapting a lab protocol, Singh was able to provide evidence that Turner Syndrome sufferers do have some cells with two X chromosomes.

“Congratulations to this year’s Regeneron Science Talent Search top winners,” said Maya Ajmera, President and CEO of Society for Science & the Public and Publisher of Science News. “I am in awe of the finalists’ passion, creativity and commitment to scientific ingenuity. The incredible history of accomplishments by past winners suggests this year’s winners will become tomorrow’s scientific leaders.”

Indeed, there was an overwhelming sense of optimism as the young participants presented their impressive work. Just as it was meant more than 70 years ago, the competition seems to bring an oasis of optimism in a scenery mostly dominated by negativism. Like Ajmera, I can’t help but feel hopeful.

“[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,” Ajmera added. “And because of the finalists…I feel so hopeful.”

The first ten competitors receive special awards (and prize money decreasing down to $40,000), and all finalists receive a $25,000 award.

This science talent competition is one of the oldest, most prestigious, and most successful ones in the world. The Society for Science & the Public began the competition in 1942 with Westinghouse Electric Corporation. Since then, over 22,000 participants have been named semifinalists and 2,920 have traveled to Washington, D.C., as contest finalists; thirteen of them went on to win the Nobel Prize, and two earned the Fields Medal,  while eleven have been awarded the National Medal of Science. Many others have won numerous accolades in all fields of science and engineering. The most recent Science Talent Search alumni to receive a Nobel Prize is Kip Thorne, who won the Prize in Physics in 2017 for his work on gravitational waves.