Teen scientists win $1.8 million at Regeneron Science Talent Search 2018

The top three winners of Regeneron STS 2018 on stage at the awards gala. PHOTO COURTESY OF SOCIETY FOR SCIENCE & THE PUBLIC/CHRIS AYERS.

Benjamin “Benjy” Firester, 18, of New York City, won the top award in the Regeneron Science Talent Search 2018, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors. Forty finalists, including Benjy, were honored tonight at the annual Regeneron Science Talent Search awards gala, which was keynoted by renowned author Malcolm Gladwell. Regeneron provided awards of more than $1.8 million for the finalists, who were evaluated for their research projects, as well as their exceptional scientific and mathematical knowledge and abilities.

Benjy won first place and $250,000 for his development of a mathematical model that uses disease data to predict how weather patterns could spread spores of the late blight fungus, which caused the Irish Potato Famine and still causes billions of dollars in crop damages annually. Benjy’s program uses existing blight locations, date, time and detailed local weather data to model the likely routes by which late blight will spread and predict likely future infection sites. Farmers might someday use shared data to assess blight risk and reduce the preemptive use of fungicide.

Second place and $175,000 went to Natalia Orlovsky, 18, of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, for her examination of the response of lung epithelial cells to fluids used in vaping, a practice promoted as a safer alternative to smoking cigarettes. While exposure to e-cigarette vapors did not change a lung cell’s DNA, as does cigarette smoke, Natalia found that fluids of varying flavors and nicotine content did produce a potent stress response associated with decreased cell viability. Her results may demonstrate a need for greater scrutiny of the composition of vaping fluids.

Third place and $150,000 went to Isani Singh, 18, of Aurora, Colorado, for her work towards determining that women with Turner Syndrome (TS), a genetic abnormality in which the second sex chromosome is missing, do have some cells with two X chromosomes. Knowing that most embryos lacking the second X do not survive, Isani adapted a laboratory protocol to search for and find these normal cells in TS embryos. She also identified genes that are under expressed in TS, a finding that may help physicians and patients better prepare for the variable medical complications of TS.