In collaboration with the Society for Science & the Public, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. has announced the names of 40 finalists in the Regeneron Science Talent Search 2020 (Regeneron STS). This science and math competition is among the nation’s oldest and most prestigious for high school seniors.
Established in 1942, the Regeneron STS recognizes promising young scientists who are developing concepts to solve society’s most urgent challenges. Alumni have gone on to receive some of the world’s most esteemed science and math honors, including 13 Nobel Prizes.
This year, finalists were selected from more than 1900 entrants, based on the rigorous nature of their projects and “their potential to become world-changing scientists and leaders,” according to the site. Each finalist is awarded a minimum of $25,000, and the top 10 awards range from $40,000 to $250,000.
What sets these young scientists apart from their cohorts is not only the ingenuity and scope of their work, but the benevolence with which they use it to serve their communities. Parentology had the distinct pleasure of speaking with two 2020 Regeneron Science Talent Search finalists: Arjun Neervannan and Lauren Chen.
Meet Lauren Chen
For Lauren Chen, inspiration came about from personal tragedy.
“One of my family members passed away a few years ago after her cancer recurred,” says Chen. “She inspired me to work towards improving the diagnosis of cancer recurrence because that could increase survival rates dramatically.” Chen’s work involved using micro RNA to predict tumor growth and cancer recurrence, with a focus on breast cancer because “it is the most common cancer in women, with one out of eight being diagnosed with it in their lifetime,” she says.
While the application process took a lot of work, “I was excited, but also definitely in shock [to be accepted] as it was totally unexpected,” she says. “I’m so grateful for this wonderful opportunity!”
Chen is not 100% sure where she’ll be attending college in the fall, but the STEM world is definitely her oyster; she plans to major in Mathematics and studying its intersections with other fields, such as biology or economics. Her fearless attitude towards STEM-based disciplines is evident in her advice to other students.
“Don’t be afraid to take leadership positions or reach out and seek opportunities. Pursue STEM because you enjoy the process of innovation and thought, and be confident in your drive and aspirations!” Chen enthuses.
Meet Arjun Neervannan
Neervannan knows firsthand about the effects of toxic language, xenophobia and cyberbullying. He set out to improve AI-driven algorithms to reduce hateful content online, and to educate people about the power of words. This stemmed from an experience using Google Docs in elementary school.
“Students would post toxic comments on Google Docs and quickly delete them before teachers would see them,” he explains. “I wanted to come up with a transparent mechanism that would highlight the toxic language usage.”
While there are existing algorithms to tackle hate speech, they are often insufficient. Neervannan researched these AI-based tools that monitored and classified potentially toxic language and found that they couldn’t identify the terms that influenced the classification.
“The root of the issue was that the algorithms didn’t understand the context, and unnecessarily flagged them as toxic without providing reasoning for the classification,” he explains. For example, the word “gay” would be flagged regardless of whether or not it was being used as a homophobic slur. Through Neervannan’s research, he developed a bias removal model that achieved 98% accuracy and 44% bias reduction.
Through presenting his project at district and state science fairs, Neervannan was able to refine his process and validate his results. Then, he discovered the Regeneron STS as a freshman in high school.
“Intrigued, I researched and learned about the kind of impact the organization has in the scientific community,” says Neervannan, who submitted and became one of the top 40 finalists. “I was extremely thrilled,” he says. “Being selected as a finalist is a major boost to my confidence and a validation of my pursuit to solve social challenges by using the latest scientific research methods. I’m incredibly honored.”
Neervannan felt he was uniquely positioned to use AI for the problem he was trying to solve. “Cyberbullying and toxic language use is a worldwide problem that affects millions of teenagers and children,” he says, citing a Pew Research Center study from 2018. The report states that 59% of American teens have been bullied or harassed online, which makes it impractical for human moderators to sift through a massive amount of content from social media, gaming chat rooms, and other online platforms. “Applying smarter AI research that can detect toxic comments faster than human moderators is the best way to solve the problem.”
Layering in the human component, an AI moderator that immediately alerts the user that they have written something toxic online can improve online behavior. Neervannan cites a study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information. “With online behavior, people are less likely to say something offensive if they know the effects of what they’re saying — the online disinhibition effect,” he says.
Neervannan says that winning Regeneron STS 2020 would not only affirm his research, but encourage peer-based collaboration. “More students would likely take part in finding even better ways, and that gives me hope that we can join our collective intellect to find even better solutions than the one I have done thus far,” he says enthusiastically.
As for his career trajectory, Neervannan looks forward to attending the Jerome Fisher Management and Technology (M&T) dual-degree program at the University of Pennsylvania. He will also receive a degree in economics from the Wharton School and a degree in Computer Science from the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Neervannan is adamant about continuing to design and build products that use scientific research to address real-world problems such as energy use and economic disparity. He says that social challenges are a great way for younger students to identify a starting point for future research. “Even the smallest of projects and discoveries can have outsized impacts,” says Neervannan.
His greatest piece of advice? Be curious and learn from failure. “An inquisitive mind with a love for learning is needed to excel in anything,” he says. “Some of the most groundbreaking discoveries have been the result of a person’s burning curiosity to think outside the box and explore the unknown.”
The top 10 Regeneron Science Talent Search 2020 winners will be announced at an awards ceremony on March 10.
Regeneron Science Talent Search 2020
UPDATE — Event Postponed
From the Society for Science & the Public and Regeneron website: The Society for Science & the Public and Regeneron have made the difficult decision to postpone the 2020 Regeneron Science Talent Search (originally planned for March 5-11 in Washington, DC) until this summer out of an abundance of caution regarding COVID-19 and in order to prioritize the health and safety of everyone who attends our events.
Regeneron Science Talent Search 2020 — Sources
Regeneron Science Talent Search
Society for Science & the Public
Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc.
Pew Research Center study
National Center for Biotechnology Information
The American Bazaar — Arjun Neervannan interview