Exoplanet hunting, HIV-fighting and math garner big prizes for teens

Exoplanet hunting, HIV-fighting and math garner big prizes for teens

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Unsolved mysteries fascinate many of us. It’s why we watch crime shows and read mystery novels. Scientists get fascinated by unsolved mysteries, too. The top three winners in the 2019 Regeneron Science Talent Search all took on their own unsolved mysteries. One hunted for planets in other solar systems that may have snuck past big telescopes. Another uncovered hiding places where HIV — the virus that causes AIDS — likes to lurk. A third, frustrated by an “unsatisfying” answer, tackled a complicated math problem.

Ana Humphrey, 18, took home $250,000 and first prize. Samuel Weissman, 17, won second place and $175,000. Adam Ardeishar, 17, came in third, winning $150,000.

“Looking at today’s finalists and thinking about the students to come, I know we are in good hands,” says Maya Ajmera. “I am thrilled that, together with Regeneron, we are able to continue this competition, now in its 78th year, and provide these young people with a platform to showcase their science.” Ajmera is president and chief executive officer of Society for Science and the Public. This organization created the Science Talent Search in 1942 and still runs the competition. (The nonprofit society also publishes Science News and Science News for Students .)

Each year, the Science Talent Search brings together 40 students from across the United States. They show their science projects to the public and face a panel of judges as they compete for more than $2 million in prizes. The Science Talent Search is sponsored by Regeneron, a company that develops medicines for diseases such as cancer.

Spacing out

Ana Humphrey has always been fascinated by exoplanets — planets in other solar systems. But it’s not because her head is in the stars. Humphrey is a senior at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va. She wants to learn more about exoplanets so she can answer questions about how our own system formed.

Eclipses come in many forms — including transits

“The only difference between an exo-solar system and our solar system is that we live in ours,” she says. By learning about exoplanets, where they are and how they form, Ana hopes to “learn about how we got here, and why our solar system is the way it is.”

Many scientists who scout for exoplanets look for transits . This is when a planet or moon passes in front of its star. If scientists have a telescope pointed in the right direction, they might see the star’s light dim a little as the planet subtly dims the star’s light.

But not all planets can be detected this way. Some small planets — those the size of Earth, for example — are too tiny. They don’t darken the starlight enough to be detected by today’s telescopes.

Ana Humphrey explains her exoplanet research at the Regeneron Science Talent Search on March 10.C. Ayers/SSP

Ana decided to hunt for some of these sneaky planets by building a computer program based on the so-called “packed system” hypothesis. This is the idea that solar systems should have as many planets as they can hold — but that they can’t hold too many.

The teen worked with NASA’s exoplanet archive, operated by the California Institute of Technology . This is a free online database of exoplanet information. Ana’s computer program hunted for “unpacked” systems. Finding one meant there might be enough space to support more exoplanets. Ana ended up identifying 560 locations in our Milky Way that might host planets. Of those, 96 were prime targets. She says that means they have enough space between known planets to fit another. To date, none of those “others” has yet been found.

Ana was eager to make sure that she was on the right research track. She ended up getting help from Elisa Quintana. She is an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The student also talked with Mark Otto, who studies statistics for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Adelphi, Md. “I tried to reach out to as many people as possible to get feedback,” Ana explains.

Viruses undercover

Sam Weissman is a senior at Harriton High School in Merion Station, Pa. Several years ago, he went to Una O’Doherty’s house for dinner with his brother, he had just learned about HIV in school. He knew that O’Doherty studied HIV at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. So he asked about her work. Afterward, he says, “She invited me to spend a week in her lab.”

At the time, Sam was still in middle school, so wasn’t allowed to do more than watch. “I made a lot of coffee,” he recalls. But when he reached high school, the scientist allowed him to start real lab work. Sam wanted to tackle the mystery of how HIV could survive in someone’s body, even after they were treated with drugs to kill the virus.

HIV reproduces in two ways. An infected cell can spit out new HIV viruses that then burrow into healthy cells. And when an infected cell divides, HIV gets another opportunity to spread. It replicates itself inside the dividing cell. “The human cell divides and takes HIV with it,” Sam explains. That keeps HIV in the body and under the radar of the immune system.

Sam and other members of O’Doherty’s lab published their discovery February 13 in the journal Nature Communications .

Unsatisfying answers

Adam Ardeishar came across his Science Talent Search project at … another competition. A senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., he was competing in the Harvard-MIT Math Tournament early last year. As part of that competition, he was asked to solve something called the “coupon collector’s problem.”

Imagine you have a big jar of jelly beans. It’s a mix of 14 different colors. There may be more green ones than pink, and more red than any other color. If you put on a blindfold and drew one bean from the jar at a time, how many jelly beans would you have to pluck out before you’d drawn one of every color? That is the question behind the coupon collector’s problem.

Adam Ardeishar brings his math project to Facebook Live during the Regeneron Science Talent Search on March 10.C. Ayers/SSP

No one has yet solved this problem for every possible number and combination. But in that 2018 competition, Adam gave it a try. “They asked me to estimate the answer,” he says. “But the solution was not very satisfying and not very mathematical.”

Adam couldn’t live with that. “When you’re solving a math problem,” he explains, “it’s like a puzzle. You get the rush at the end when you’re solved the problem.” However, he notes, “When you get an unsatisfying solution, there’s not the same rush.”

The teen decided to take on the coupon collector’s problem himself. He got in touch with a friend, Franklyn Wang. Wang is now a college student at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. But while a senior in high school, Wang also was a Science Talent Search finalist. “He gave me some reading materials,” Adam says. Later, they video chatted while Adam worked out the coupon collector’s problem.

While Adam didn’t completely solve the problem, he came very close. The results could help people better calculate things like extreme events, he says — such as 1,000-year floods or when a bridge might collapse.

“Great scientists … like the 40 young scientists we are honoring here today, are among the most powerful people on Earth,” says Leonard Schleifer. He is the founder and chief executive of Regeneron. “In fact, I consider them as having a super power … the amazing power of traveling to the future and bringing important inventions and discoveries back to the present.” By performing research, he says, these teens “have the power … to change our lives today.”

Power Words

AIDS (short for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) A disease that weakens a body’s immune system, greatly lowering resistance to infections and some cancers. It is caused by the HIV germ. (See also HIV)

archive (adj. archival) To collect and store materials, including sounds, videos, data and objects, so that they can be found and used when they are needed. The term is also for the process of collecting and storing such things. People who perform this task are known as archivists.

astrophysics An area of astronomy that deals with understanding the physical nature of stars and other objects in space. People who work in this field are known as astrophysicists.

biology The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.

cancer Any of more than 100 different diseases, each characterized by the rapid, uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. The development and growth of cancers, also known as malignancies, can lead to tumors, pain and death.

cell The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the unaided eye, it consists of a watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall. Depending on their size, animals are made of anywhere from thousands to trillions of cells. Most organisms, such as yeasts, molds, bacteria and some algae, are composed of only one cell.

computer program A set of instructions that a computer uses to perform some analysis or computation. The writing of these instructions is known as computer programming.

computer science The scientific study of the principles and use of computers. Scientists who work in this field are known as computer scientists.

data Facts and/or statistics collected together for analysis but not necessarily organized in a way that gives them meaning. For digital information (the type stored by computers), those data typically are numbers stored in a binary code, portrayed as strings of zeros and ones.

database An organized collection of related data.

diagnose To analyze clues or symptoms in the search for their cause. The conclusion usually results in a diagnosis — identification of the causal problem or disease.

DNA (short for deoxyribonucleic acid) A long, double-stranded and spiral-shaped molecule inside most living cells that carries genetic instructions. It is built on a backbone of phosphorus, oxygen, and carbon atoms. In all living things, from plants and animals to microbes, these instructions tell cells which molecules to make.

engineering The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems.

environment The sum of all of the things that exist around some organism or the process and the condition those things create. Environment may refer to the weather and ecosystem in which some animal lives, or, perhaps, the temperature and humidity (or even the placement of things in the vicinity of an item of interest).

environmental science The study of ecosystems to help identify environmental problems and possible solutions. Environmental science can bring together many fields including physics, chemistry, biology and oceanography to understand how ecosystems function and how humans can coexist with them in harmony. People who work in this field are known as environmental scientists.

exoplanet Short for extrasolar planet, it’s a planet that orbits a star outside our solar system.

feedback A response or assessment that follows some a particular act or decision. Or a process or combination of processes that propel or exaggerate a change in some direction. For instance, as the cover of Arctic ice disappears with global warming, less of the sun’s warming energy will be reflected back into space. This will serve to increase the rate of Earth’s warming. That warming might trigger some feedback (like sea-ice melting) that fosters additional warming.

HIV (short for Human Immunodeficiency Virus) A potentially deadly virus that attacks cells in the body’s immune system and causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS.

hypothesis (v. hypothesize) A proposed explanation for a phenomenon. In science, a hypothesis is an idea that must be rigorously tested before it is accepted or rejected.

immune (adj.) Having to do with the immunity. (v.) Able to ward off a particular infection. Alternatively, this term can be used to mean an organism shows no impacts from exposure to a particular poison or process. More generally, the term may signal that something cannot be hurt by a particular drug, disease or chemical.

immune system The collection of cells and their responses that help the body fight off infections and deal with foreign substances that may provoke allergies.

middle school A designation for grades six through eight in the U.S. educational system. It comes immediately prior to high school. Some school systems break their age groups slightly different, including sixth grade as part of elementary school and then referring to grades seven and eight as “junior” high school.

Milky Way The galaxy in which Earth’s solar system resides.

moon The natural satellite of any planet.

NASA Short for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Created in 1958, this U.S. agency has become a leader in space research and in stimulating public interest in space exploration. It was through NASA that the United States sent people into orbit and ultimately to the moon. It also has sent research craft to study planets and other celestial objects in our solar system.

planet A celestial object that orbits a star, is big enough for gravity to have squashed it into a roundish ball and has cleared other objects out of the way in its orbital neighborhood.

radar A system for calculating the position, distance or other important characteristic of a distant object. It works by sending out periodic radio waves that bounce off of the object and then measuring how long it takes that bounced signal to return. Radar can detect moving objects, like airplanes. It also can be used to map the shape of land — even land covered by ice.

recall A procedure whereby companies remove particular products from the market (i.e. store shelves) because the products were defective, dangerous or might pose some newfound risk of harm. Or a product that had already been purchased (such as a car or lawn mower) might be recalled so that a manufacturer could fix a problem in it or give people their money back.

rocket Something propelled into the air or through space, sometimes as a weapon of war. A rocket usually is lofted by the release of exhaust gases as some fuel burns. (v.) Something that flings into space at high speed as if fueled by combustion.

Science Talent Search An annual competition created and run by Society for Science & the Public. Begun in 1942, this event brings 40 research-oriented high school seniors to Washington, D.C. each year to showcase their research to the public and to compete for awards. Since spring 2016, this competition has been sponsored by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals.

Society for Science and the Public A nonprofit organization created in 1921 and based in Washington, D.C. Since its founding, the Society has been promoting not only public engagement in scientific research but also the public understanding of science. It created and continues to run three renowned science competitions: the Regeneron Science Talent Search (begun in 1942), the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (initially launched in 1950) and Broadcom MASTERS (created in 2010). The Society also publishes award-winning journalism: in Science News (launched in 1922) and Science News for Students (created in 2003). Those magazines also host a series of blogs (including Eureka! Lab).

solar system The eight major planets and their moons in orbit around our sun, together with smaller bodies in the form of dwarf planets, asteroids, meteoroids and comets.

star The basic building block from which galaxies are made. Stars develop when gravity compacts clouds of gas. When they become dense enough to sustain nuclear-fusion reactions, stars will emit light and sometimes other forms of electromagnetic radiation. The sun is our closest star.

statistics The practice or science of collecting and analyzing numerical data in large quantities and interpreting their meaning. Much of this work involves reducing errors that might be attributable to random variation. A professional who works in this field is called a statistician.

subtly An adverb to describe something that may be important, but can be hard to see or describe. For instance, the first cellular changes that signal the start of a cancer may be only subtly different — as in small and hard to distinguish from nearby healthy tissues.

technology The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.

telescope Usually a light-collecting instrument that makes distant objects appear nearer through the use of lenses or a combination of curved mirrors and lenses. Some, however, collect radio emissions (energy from a different portion of the electromagnetic spectrum) through a network of antennas.

transit (in astronomy) The passing of a planet, asteroid or comet across the face of a star, or of a moon across the face of a planet.

virus Tiny infectious particles consisting of RNA or DNA surrounded by protein. Viruses can reproduce only by injecting their genetic material into the cells of living creatures. Although scientists frequently refer to viruses as live or dead, in fact no virus is truly alive. It doesn’t eat like animals do, or make its own food the way plants do. It must hijack the cellular machinery of a living cell in order to survive.