They are digging into the structure of the genes behind cancer, studying the mysterious forces of the cosmos and developing software to read emotions.
The 40 finalists of the Regeneron Science Talent Search who arrive in the District next month represent the pinnacle of science research among teens. Their projects could translate into important developments in science and medicine.
Four are from the Washington area: Prathik Naidu, of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County; David Rekhtman, of Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda; and Sambuddha Chattopadhyay and Rohan Dalvi, both of Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring.
The contest, previously known as the Intel Science Talent Search, has a new name and a new principal sponsor. Regeneron, a biotechnology company, was started by two talent-search finalists. The contest’s aim is the same.
“We are looking for the future scientific leaders of this country,” said Maya Ajmera, the president and chief executive of the Society for Science & the Public, which produces the science talent search.
The teens in the competition are more than lab geeks. Many work part-time jobs and throw their skills and time into volunteering. Some have founded nonprofit organizations dedicated to classical language and computer science. Nearly half are athletes, and several edit student publications.
“The kids are incredibly well-rounded. They not only do science research, but they are involved in all aspects of the world around them,” Ajmera said. “They want to make the world a better place, and they see this as a steppingstone.”
All finalists will receive $25,000 scholarships. The top prize comes with a $250,000 scholarship.
Here is a look at some of the finalists:
When Prathik Naidu, 17, envisioned becoming a research scientist, he saw himself in a white lab jacket. He performed his first experiments using a chemistry kit he got for his birthday in his parents’ kitchen, donning miniature goggles.
Then he spent a summer at Johns Hopkins University, where he discovered computational biology, a field in which scientists use computers to make predictions and process large amounts of biological data. They are more prone to be found hunched over a computer than a petri dish.
“That’s what really got me interested in bridging the gap between computer science and biology,” Naidu said.
Naidu’s project, developed during a summer internship at MIT, examines the genes of cancer cells in a three-dimensional way with software he built himself.
“This gives us an unprecedented insight into the inner working of cancer cells, something that we haven’t be able to see before using normal techniques,” Naidu said.
His passion for computational biology has taken him to an international conference in Dublin, where he was the only high school student to present research. It also led him to establish a computational biology conference, hoping to get middle and high school students excited about real-world applications of computer science.
He has applied his love of computer science to an entirely different field: ancient languages. He is the founder of the Classics Project, which aims to promote Latin and Greek in the classroom and in veterans’ homes. Naidu has led groups, with veterans reading classics such as “The Aeneid.”
“If I learn something cool, then someone else should know it, too,” Naidu said. If he could spread his excitement about computer science or the classics to a younger generation of students, “that could create the next generation of young scientists or young researchers or young change-makers.”
Sambuddha Chattopadhyay, 17, sees himself not only as a budding physicist but also as an explorer akin to the movie character Indiana Jones. Rather than chasing relics in booby-trapped temples in Peru, Sambuddha is probing mysteries of the far reaches of the universe — theoretically speaking.
“It’s very much like being like Indiana Jones,” Chattopadhyay said. “You’re on the forefront of putting stuff in museums, but just in a different way.”
Chattopadhyay’s project explores dark energy, “an enigmatic phenomenon that is causing the accelerating expansion of the universe,” he said. Physicists discovered dark energy in the late 1990s, but have had difficulty quantifying it and understanding it.
“We’re very much in the dark of how to deal with dark energy,” Chattopadhyay said.
He said his research “may provide a viable path to understanding dark energy in the future.”
Outside the laboratory, Chattopadhyay helps Blair High put on a math tournament for middle schoolers and performs Bengali songs and poetry.
After his school day ends at Whitman High, David Rekhtman, 18, leaves campus for an unusual activity: research at the National Institutes of Health. There, Rekhtman, who is in the second year of a special high school internship program at NIH, helped discover something that could lead to an important breakthrough in cancer treatment.
Rekhtman’s project examines the potential of immunogenic cell death in cancer treatment, which he explained as training “the immune system to recognize and kill cancer cells.”
The approach could come with fewer side effects than common cancer treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation.
“It’s better to use your own body to fight disease than it is to use many many different kinds of drugs,” Rekhtman said.
Rekhtman experimented with heating cancer cells using a laser, a simple approach that appeared to prompt an immune response, at least within the confines of the lab. Now, the technique is being tested in clinical trials at NIH, where researchers will test its effectiveness in real patients.
Rohan Dalvi, 17, has been drawn to biology for a simple reason: “I really like that it’s sort of driven by the desire to improve human lives,” he said.
Dalvi spent the summer of 2015 at a genetics lab at Johns Hopkins University, where he grew deeply fascinated by the “interactions between the molecules.”
For his project, Dalvi worked with researchers in a Georgetown University chemistry lab, where he aided them in developing a faster and more efficient technique for gauging the size and structure of biomolecules — the molecules that make up living organisms.
It is a long way from being refined, but Dalvi said if it is ever adopted on a large scale, it could accelerate drug research. Developing a new drug can be a tedious game of hit-or-miss, so a new tool that can analyze molecules faster and more efficiently could be a game-changer.
Dalvi said the new technique has the potential to look at the structure of a drug molecule and its ability to bind to a protein at the same time. That could give researchers clues to how effective a drug would be.
The technique could also give researchers a better sense of how proteins function, aiding them in studying diseases and developing better treatments.
“We can potentially understand the mechanisms on a molecular level that underlay some of these diseases,” Rohan said.
When Emily Peterson was in elementary school, she started an organization to buy teddy bears for young burn victims at Stonybrook Hospital in New York, an effort inspired by her firefighter father. She recalls the first time she delivered a bear to a patient, a 3- or 4-year-old boy covered in bandages.
“I remember walking into the room. This little boy was just crying and screaming to his parents because it hurt so badly,” said Peterson, now 17, a senior at Smithtown High School East in St. James, N.Y. “It really opened my eyes to how severe it can be and how devastating it could be to someone’s life.”
As an eighth grader, she learned about a researcher’s work on improving and speeding up recovery for burn victims while she made waffles for an awards ceremony at the burn center. She then discovered her calling: to improve the lives of burn victims.
Peterson started her research at 16 at the Living Skin Bank, part of the Stony Book School of Dental Medicine. She has focused on probing the function of a special protein, called lecithin-retinol acyltransferase, or LRAT, that plays a role in wound repair. Her research suggests that the absence of the protein could play a role in skin cancer because cancerous cells do not express the protein.
Emily hopes her work will help doctors develop better treatments for burn victims. Much of the foundational treatment, she said, has not changed for centuries and still involves an abundance of patience and extreme pain. She said her work with burn patients will continue to drive her efforts.
“I’ve met the person who my research is going to affect someday and I know the problem that’s it’s going to help,” Emily said. “Once we gain enough knowledge about the healthy wound-healing process, we’ll be able to improve that in burn victims.”
Students in developing countries face plenty of challenges in getting an education: a lack of books and pencils, and in some cases, a teacher.
Krithika Iyer, 17, of Plano, Tex., said some students are now relying primarily or exclusively on donated laptops and tablets, loaded with software, to get their education without a teacher who can explain difficult-to-comprehend subjects and encourage them when they feel challenged.
So she created an app that can read a student’s face through a camera and help gauge whether a student is comprehending a subject or growing frustrated.
“When there’s no teachers, you really don’t get the social atmosphere,” Iyer said. “This is trying to take into account the student’s emotional response.”
Iyer said emotional cues are critical to help teachers discern whether a student is absorbing a topic, and she aims to try to replicate that with the app. If a student is alone and struggling, the app could develop a feature that prompts a message suggesting a student take a break or directing the student to less-challenging materials. Iyer said the app could help keep students in the virtual classroom. Working alone, some could be tempted to give up.
“It will allow them to have a social atmosphere because the system will take in their emotions and will give them more humanlike response,” Iyer said. “When they reach that critical stage of frustration, where they just want to give up, if there’s a system that can understand that they’re frustrated and do something about it, that will keep them engaged.”