Not Your Average Competition: Blair's 2019 STS Finalists

by Uma Gupta for Silver Chips

The Regeneron Science Talent Search, previously known as the Intel Science Talent Search, is lauded by its hosts as the world's most prestigious science and mathematics competition. Talent search alumni have gone on to receive Nobel Prizes, MacArthur Fellowships, and fund companies dedicated to research. On January 23rd, 40 out of 2,000 applicants nationwide were selected to become finalists in the competition and receive 25 thousand dollars each.

Although the top ten winners were selected on March 12th, those searching for talent need look no further than Blair, where three of this years Regeneron finalists can be found working hard to improve the future of science and mathematics.

For seniors Daniel Schäffer, Grace Cai and Kevin Qian, the initial shock and joy of being selected as finalists was followed by a “scrupulous” week-long judging process in Washington D.C. Alongside peers from across the nation, Schäffer, Qian, and Cai had to respond to judge questionings, speak at panels, and attend a formal gala as part of Regeneron’s intense selection process.

Although still recovering from the frenzied week of meeting congressmen and talking to the press, the three seniors were easily able to explain their vastly complex projects to the less STEM-savvy listener.

Although the value of his project has been demonstrated, Qian’s work is far from over. This summer he plans to return to the University of Maryland and continue his research on metrology. Wherever Qian ends up taking his talent, he will carry with him more than just valued research from his Regeneron experience.

“I guess it’s kind of cool that there’s this new field of quantum technology and that you can use these various… unintuitive phenomena to do things better like faster computers, better measurements, better security, [and] better cryptography,” Qian says.

The applications of his quantum metrology project span from the potential improvement of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) imaging to code writing and breaking.

“Imagine you had to measure the sum of two magnetic fields [and] it turns out it’s not optimal just to measure one and measure the other and add them together. You can use some quantum phenomena to get a more accurate measurement,” Qian says.

Kevin Qian, who started his project in January of 2018, described his research as “an intersection of math and physics.” Qian developed a method of utilizing quantum phenomena in order to achieve more accurate measurements of electric or magnetic fields.

“I learned a lot about other people’s projects and them themselves so a big thing I took away from [regeneron] was new friends,” he says.

“In these locations it’s really dangerous to send in human operatives which is kind of what motivates swarms in the first place,” Cai says. “My particular algorithm would basically just help with shelter seeking and risk avoidance when a swarm is going out and doing their job."

What attracted Cai’s attention was the ability of these swarms to be controlled across various computers rather than just one. Cai’s algorithm focused modeling the behavior of these robots as they explored various locations in space. Such research is generally applied to military ventures, including search and rescue operations.

After hearing about a concept known as swarm intelligence in 11th grade, computer science veteran Grace Cai was inspired to pursue the novel challenge presented by swarm behavior herself.

“When you think swarms, think swarms of ants or bees except instead of those you have robots and they’re like little drones basically,” Cai says.

Aside from using the Regeneron competition to explore a novel topic in her field, Cai said that the competition helped her expand her interests beyond computer science. “It kind of just showed me all the different kinds of research there was out there because mainly I do stuff with computer science which is very different than biological or chemical research or even engineering,” Cai says.

To future Regeneron applicants, Cai emphasized the importance of maintaining perspective. In the end, it’s not about awards, it’s about research.

“Be chill about the awards and stuff. You celebrate doing the research because that’s like the cool part,” Cai says.

“It has applications to our understanding of eukaryotic evolution but that’s not going to help Joe on the street,” he says.

Additionally, Schäffer’s further work with a protein known as Wolframin may have applications to the study of a rare genetic disorder known as Wolfram syndrome.

While Schäffer’s research paper has been years in the making and offers an in-depth look at a captivating scientific phenomenon, his doubts regarding the value of his research and a self-professed “bad track record” with science competitions nearly stopped him from entering the Regeneron talent search. With $25,000 and a finalist medal to his name, Schäffer was “shocked.”

Having sufficiently recovered from this shock, Schäffer reminds high school researchers like himself to be proud of their work, adding that they alone determine their self-worth.

“These science competitions, they provide a measure of your self-worth as a researcher. It’s a bad measure. You shouldn’t listen to it…. The only thing you need to be a good researcher I’d say is really just be curious and keep trying.”

According to Schäffer, the potential applications of his research are limited, something he fears may have cost him the competition.

Daniel Schäffer built off research which he began in 8th grade at the National Institutes of Health for his Regeneron submission. Although he started the project itself in eleventh grade, Schäffer has long been exploring the evolutionary mechanisms of Eukaryotic cells that store calcium.

“Within eukaryotic cells calcium ions are stored in the endoplasmic reticulum and this protects the rest of the cell from toxic concentrations of calcium,” Schäffer said. “My project was about studying the system.”