DALLAS, Texas — Research on exoplanets, mpox, insects and suicide earned six teens top prizes — and big prize money — here today at the 2023 Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). The competition is open to high school researchers from around the world. Top winners this year took home at least $50,000 each.
More than 1,600 young scientists and engineers competed at Regeneron ISEF, this week, in Dallas. Hundreds of these finalists shared nearly $9 million in awards.
“Even at your age, you’re already finding solutions to some of the world’s most intractable problems,” said Maya Ajmera, speaking at the grand awards ceremony today. “Among you,” she said, “I see future innovators, leaders and trailblazers.” Ajmera is president of Society for Science (which also publishes this magazine). The Society has run the ISEF competition since it created this annual event in 1950.
Kaitlyn Wang, 17, took home the competition’s top prize this year. She developed a method to detect a type of hard-to-find planet that orbits some distant stars. These exoplanets are known as USPs for their ultra-short periods. Each of them orbit their stars so closely that it takes less than 24 hours to make a full circle. (Our home planet, in contrast, takes 365 days to make one trip around the sun.)
“Scientists still don’t understand how [USP planets] are able to form and survive so close to the host stars,” says Kaitlyn. A junior, she attends the Harker School in San José, Calif.
Researchers would like to better understand USPs. Many exoplanets can be spotted if the planet briefly passes between its home star and Earth. As it makes this transit, the planet briefly cuts how much light from its star reaches Earth.
But such a dimming is hard to see with USP planets. That’s not only because their stars are so close to them, but also because that transit occurs so briefly. So Kaitlyn designed a fast, precise and relatively low-cost new system called ExoScout.
It sorts through data from lots of transits all at once. The algorithm she created to do this is 120 times speedier than existing methods, Kaitlyn says. Sifting through a star database known as the Kepler Input Catalog, for example, usually takes about 4.5 years, the teen notes. The exhaustive search also has usually required use of heavy-duty supercomputers. With ExoScout, data processing takes a mere 14 days using relatively low-cost and easy-to-access computer hardware.
Kaitlyn’s new system is 97 percent accurate. Using it, she has already turned up three previously unknown USP planets. “I think they’re pretty cute,” she says. One of them, Kepler-1598d, is the smallest USP planet ever found. “I like to call it little D,” she notes.
The teen plans to publish both her methodology and a description of the exoplanets she discovered.
For her work, Kaitlyn took home this year’s George D. Yancopoulos Innovator Award and $75,000. She also took first place in the physics and astronomy division, receiving another $5,000.
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Mechanisms behind mpox resurgence
Mpox is a viral disease known for its sometimes painful or itchy rash. A global outbreak of it sprang up suddenly last year. The United States alone saw more than 30,000 confirmed cases in just six months. Saathvik Kannan, 17, wanted to know why the virus became so infectious. The junior attends David H. Hickman High School in Columbia, Mo.
To copy itself, the mpox virus relies on genetic instructions in its DNA. A complex — or group — of four proteins are responsible for turning one piece of DNA into multiple copies, Saathvik says. Mutations in those proteins might help the virus copy itself faster. That, he thought, might speed its ability to infect people. So Saathvik turned his focus to that complex.
First, the teen figured out the structures of the complex’s four proteins and then pieced them together. At the time he worked on this, he says, those structures had been completely unknown.
He found several genetic mutations in the current virus. Three stood out — ones that had never been seen prior to 2022. One in particular hints that the complex is “able to do its job faster,” Saathvik says. That means faster DNA production and virus copying.
This work earned Saathvik a Regeneron Young Scientist Award and $50,000. He also took first place in the fair’s computational biology and bioinformatics division, receiving another $5,000.
Fighting insects with insects
Many insect pests suck nutrients out of plants, harming or even killing their hosts. Predatory insects called green lacewings could come to the rescue — but only if they live long enough to eat enough of the plant pests.
The problem: Green lacewing eggs often don’t hatch. And when they do, the young often eat their neighbor eggs.
A trio of Thai teens found the ideal conditions to not only boost the eggs’ survival but also limit their cannibalism. Poon Trakultangmun, 18, is a high school senior. Teepakorn Keawumdee, 17, is in 11th grade. And Pannathorn Siri, 16, is a sophomore. All attend Bangkok Christian College.
These teens tested a number of environmental factors to identify the temperature, lighting and leaf-vibration frequency that promotes egg survival. The group then designed an egg shipping container to maintain those same conditions. Using their invention, nearly six times as many green lacewing eggs survived compared to those incubated in the typical container.
To reduce cannibalism, the teens fashioned another container for the bugs in farm fields. This one held bits of paper that blocked the bugs from eating eggs of their own species. They also packed along some mealybugs as snacks. (Lacewings prefer to munch on mealybugs compared to eggs of their own species, the teens found.) The teens now hope to go global with their work, stopping insect pests elsewhere.
This trio, too, received a Regeneron Young Scientist Award and will split $50,000. They also will share $5,000 more for winning top prize in the animal sciences division.
Biological signs of suicide
Sadly, suicide is a leading cause of death among teens. Health professionals rely on psychological tests to decide if someone may be considering suicide. But what if doctors could detect biological signs that signal someone is at high risk?
That thought led Natasha Kulviwat to search for so-called suicide biomarkers.
The 16-year-old worked with brains from cadavers. Those from people who had died by suicide had a protein where it shouldn’t be. Called claudin-5, it’s typically located in walls of the brain’s blood vessels. The protein is part of a shield that protects the brain from harmful substances that could be lurking in the blood.
In brains of people who died by suicide, Natasha found the protein was now in nerve cells. It hints that the blood-brain barrier had been breaking down in those people.
“We need more research on suicide,” says Natasha, a junior at Jericho High School in New York. “It is a very, very dark topic … But someone has to do it.”
The project earned Natasha the Gordon E. Moore Award and $50,000. She also won a $5,000 award for best project in the biomedical and health sciences division at ISEF and a special $1,000 Serving Society through Science award. That last prize honors a finalist whose work is especially creative and has the potential to improve the lives of people or represent a dramatic scientific advancement.
This year’s Regeneron ISEF finalists came from 64 countries, regions and territories. More than one in every four competitors took home some award this year. “This is only the beginning,” Ajmera told all the finalists. “I cannot wait to see what you accomplish next.”
Suicide was the third leading cause of death among U.S. teens ages 15-19 in 2021. If you or someone you know is suffering from suicidal thoughts, please seek help. In the United States, you can reach the Suicide Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988. Please do not suffer in silence.