Natalia Orlovsky had a hard time deciding where to go to college. Her options — Princeton University in New Jersey or the University of Oxford in England — reflected her internal struggle over competing interests: STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) vs. the humanities. It’s a debate roiling the education world, too.
If Orlovsky chose Oxford, she would study history. If she chose Princeton, she would study science, a subject in which she recently displayed award-winning proficiency.
Orlovsky, 18, won second place and $175,000 in the Regeneron Science Talent Search in March for her research on electronic cigarettes. That contest is widely regarded as the most prestigious science competition and was known to earlier generations as the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, before it was named for Intel and, now, Regeneron.
Coming of age in a generation infatuated with vaping, Orlovsky found safety claims from the electronic-cigarette industry suspicious. While at a summer program at the University of Pennsylvania, Orlovsky monitored lung cells, comparing the reaction to traditional tobacco smoke and e-cigarette smoke.
The teen from Chadds Ford, Pa., found that exposure to e-cigarette vapors did not change a lung cell’s DNA like cigarette smoke does. But she discovered that fluids of varying flavors and nicotine content that are used in e-cigarettes produce a stress response associated with less viable cells. This, she says, further debunks the notion that the electronic alternative is harmless.
Science has fascinated Orlovsky since childhood.
Her mother, she said, “encouraged me to ask questions and read books if I didn’t understand things.”
Orlovsky wants to continue working on projects involving molecular biology and psychology. But if she goes to Princeton and studies science, it would be challenging to immerse herself in the humanities, the student said.
“I’ve found having more interdisciplinary interests lets me approach questions in different ways,” Orlovsky said. “Having a background in the humanities can make someone a better scientist.”
Her dual interests come in part from her mother, who works in STEM and emigrated from Russia in the 1990s. Orlovsky spent much of her youth playing with science kits with her mom and listening to history lectures in the car.
She revels at the prospect of learning about power struggles such as the War of the Roses or historical figures such as Maximilien Robespierre, a leader during the early stages of the French Revolution. Engaging with time periods and figures such as these, Orlovsky said, would expand her knowledge of history — and make her a better scientist.
“I don’t think I ever really outgrew that phase where I ask why things are the way they are,” Orlovsky said. “I find moments of realization to be really satisfying . . . getting to formulate hypotheses or trying to test them through a body of evidence” — either scientific or historical — “is quite satisfying.”
But would it be Princeton or Oxford? Science or the humanities? The day before the committal deadline, Orlovsky decided to enroll at Princeton. “I wasn’t willing to give up experimental research just yet,” she said. Orlovsky said she plans to study humanities through her extracurriculars and, she hopes, take a few courses alongside her science classes.
Her talents in science were evident at the talent search, which was founded in 1942.
Regeneron Pharmaceuticals committed $100 million through 2026 to the Society for Science & the Public, the nonprofit that puts on the annual competition.
These “competitors are some of our country’s very best young scientists,” said George D. Yancopoulos, an alumnus of the competition and president of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals.
More than 1,800 students applied this year for the competition.
The 40 finalists traveled to Washington to meet lawmakers, top scientists and compete for the grand prize, $250,000.
Benjy Firester of New York won first place for his math model that predicts potential crop infections based on blight locations and weather data.
Eleven of the top 300 scholars attend Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring.
David Wu, a senior at Montgomery Blair, won fifth place and $90,000. His project explored why prime-number patterns behave in irregular ways. Wu said cybersecurity and cryptography can benefit from his work because much of it is based on prime numbers and number theory.