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Lillian Petersen Wins $250,000 Top Prize In Nation’s Oldest And Most Prestigious STEM Competition

[Aug. 11, 2020: Los Alamos Reporter]



Los Alamos High School Class of 2020 graduate Lillian Petersen has won the top prize in the Regeneron Science Talent Search 2020. Petersen was accepted to Harvard University through the early admissions process in December, and plans to major in Computational Molecular Biology next fall.


Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (NASDAQ:REGN) and Society for Science & the Public have announced that Lillian Petersen, 17, of Los Alamos, won the $250,000 top award in the Regeneron Science Talent Search 2020, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors.


For the first time in its 78-year history, the competition took place virtually, in order to keep finalists and their families safe during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Forty finalists, including Lillian, were honored tonight during a virtual award ceremony. More than $1.8 million was awarded to the finalists, who were evaluated based on the scientific rigor of their projects, their exceptional problem-solving abilities and their potential to become scientific leaders.


First place winner Lillian Petersen invented a simple tool for predicting harvests early in the growing season, which helps to improve food distribution planning and offers a promising resource to those working to address global food insecurity. Lillian first validated her tool, which analyzes daily satellite imagery using accepted measures of vegetation health, on known domestic crop data. She then tested it for countries in Africa and successfully predicted harvests with high accuracy against reported yields.

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Second place and $175,000 went to Jagdeep Bhatia, 18, of Green Brook, New Jersey for developing two fast and simple machine learning algorithms for computer programs that are attempting to learn new concepts under the tutelage of an instructor, either a computer or human. His algorithms do not only ask random questions but, like a savvy detective, ask just the right ones. His AI algorithms could help train robots and other automated devices faster and easier.


Third place and $150,000 went to Brendan Crotty, 18, of Muskogee, Oklahoma for his project where he designed and built an efficient hybrid gas burner that could help reduce the ecological impact of industries like power generation and materials manufacturing. His specialized burner system operates at higher temperatures than current industrial burners yet emits 19 percent less polluting nitrogen dioxide gas. To build his model, Brendan had to become proficient in computer design software, metal casting and machining.


“Congratulations to the Regeneron Science Talent Search 2020 winners,” said Maya Ajmera, President and CEO of Society for Science & the Public, Publisher of Science News and 1985 Science Talent Search alumna. “Students like Lillian Petersen are the stewards of our future. The current pandemic has made it clear how important science is to our wellbeing. With these finalists at the forefront of scientific and engineering discovery, I know we are in good hands. They will be solving the world’s most intractable problems.”


The Regeneron Science Talent Search provides a national stage for the best and brightest young minds to present their original research ideas to leading scientists. The competition celebrates the hard work and creativity of students who are using research as activism to spark conversation, effect change and lead many of society’s most pressing issues.


“I’m amazed by the tenacity of this year’s Regeneron Science Talent Search finalists, many of whom are seeking solutions to our greatest global challenges, and who rolled with the punches while competing during an unprecedented global pandemic,” said Leonard S. Schleifer, M.D., Ph.D., Co-Founder, President and Chief Executive Officer of Regeneron. “Congratulations to the winners, and welcome to the community of Science Talent Search alumni who have displayed remarkable scientific curiosity and leveraged their experience to make a difference in the sciences and beyond.”


Other top honors from the competition include:


Fourth Place: Rupert Li of Portland, Oregon received a $100,000 award for his math theory project that resolved an abstract algebra question concerning the “abelian sandpile model” to explore the underlying algebraic structure of a group. His creative approach to a specific type of mathematical model defined on graphs suggests a new approach that other mathematicians studying similar problems may find useful.


Fifth Place: Anaiah Thomas of Teaneck, New Jersey received a $90,000 award for her investigation on how the natural killer (NK) immune cells, CD56bright and CD56dim, are influenced by cancer cells – research that could one day lead to new cancer therapies. CD56bright NK cells stop CD56dim NK cells from attacking healthy tissue. When Anaiah cultured these NK cells together with cancer-derived fibroblast cells that can stimulate changes in their function, she found that NK cells can switch type based on their microenvironment......Read More