By Sarah Huang
There has been major buzz roaming the halls of Byram Hills these past few weeks. On January 4th, three seniors – Yasamin Bayley, Isabelle (Izzy) Chong, and Audrey Saltzman – were announced to be among 300 Regeneron Science Talent Search (STS) scholars whose projects were chosen from over 1500 applicants nationwide. Being a scholar is equivalent to being a semifinalist, and this distinction consists of a $1,000 prize for both the winner and their respective high school. More recently, on January 24th, Audrey was named a finalist, meaning that she was among the best forty seniors whose projects will undergo another round of judging for the top prizes. For those who don’t know, the Regeneron (formerly Westinghouse, and then Intel) Science Talent Search is a research-based competition for high school seniors who compete for more than three million dollars total in prize money and recognition among the professional scientific community. Past winners of STS have gone on to win Nobel prizes, National Medals of Science, Fields Metals, MacArthur Fellowships, and various other prestigious scientific honors. Byram Hills has a very impressive record with winners: 86 semifinalists including Yasamin and Izzy, and 16 finalists including Audrey. Though their recognition can be attributed to curiosity and a genuine desire to do good, it is also largely the result of an unbreakable work ethic, which they not only have towards research but to life in general. Despite the fact that each is very busy with school, I was lucky to have the chance to ask about their journeys and get to know their research on a deeper level, which I will attempt to explain clearly.
Yasamin took her love of sea life into her science research project by studying the ocean and “the relationship between the little things and the big things.” She studied coccolithophores, a type of marine phytoplankton, because of their impact on the carbon cycle. These coccolithophores produce tiny shell-like disks that are made of calcium carbonate, or coccoliths, which sink to the bottom of the ocean floor and help maintain the alkalinity of the water. Due to climate change and increased surface temperatures of the ocean, Yasamin decided to study the effect of light intensity on coccolithophores by comparing the growth rate of coccoliths to high and low light and how each responded differently. Though she did the majority of the work in terms of reading, planning, and setting up an experiment, she was trained on how to use equipment with the help of her mentor, Dr. Glen Wheeler, a research fellow at the Marine Biological Association of the UK. In the end, she found that there would be a net decrease in the amount of calcium carbonate produced, which would lead to a change in the carbon and nutrient cycling. This could lead to changes in the chemistry of the ocean as well as reduced minerals for other organisms.
The motivation for Izzy’s project came from something completely different than the ocean; “I was inspired by the electronic navigational aid on the show Covert Affairs (which isn’t that great of a show – I was waiting for NCIS to come on) and by autonomous vehicles, since I used some of the same technologies.” She developed an Electronic Navigational Aid (ENA) which improved upon the classic white cane (which had a limited range and required extensive training to use). Izzy got into reading the literature and finding out about the different available forms of electronic navigation and their strengths and weaknesses. After contacting Professor Yao Wang at NYU Tandon School of Engineering, she began building and coding her Electronic Navigational Aid (ENA) in her basement, eventually completing it and testing its range and performance with human subjects. Her completed ENA can detect obstacles within a six meter range, raising an alarm to the user through sound and haptic (a vibration) feedback if an obstacle has been detected. Izzy’s device has the potential to provide a robust alternative method of blind navigation in the future.
Audrey was captivated by space and astronomy from a young age, and doing her research project has offered her an opportunity akin to jumping into her dreams. Her project is focused on neutron stars, or the remnants of massive stars once they’ve exploded and undergone gravitational collapse. With the help of her mentor, Dr. Miller of the University of Michigan, she determined the radius of the neutron star in the system 1RXS J180408.9-342058 by analyzing data from the Swift satellite. On her own, Audrey taught herself Regents-level physics and introductory calculus. She read various journal articles and then instruction manuals on how to operate software and was aided by her mentor in figuring out how to interpret her results. During the summer of her junior year, Audrey conducted her project in the basement of her house while receiving guidance by speaking with Dr. Miller on the phone. “I would decide my goals for the day and how far I wanted to pursue each element of the project,” she says. “I ran all of the models and made all of the graphs.” Audrey’s study is unique because she investigated the outburst spectrum of J1804 (the name of the neutron star) for longer than any other study in the literature. Her’s was the first to model the thermal evolution of a neutron star in a low-mass X-ray binary system in both UV and X-ray wavelengths simultaneously, and has provided one of the clearest detections of photons being absorbed and reemitted by the disk of a neutron star to date.
Although becoming a semifinalist was never a goal for any of the three, they are very happy and appreciate that the importance of the implications of their work are being recognized. Their achievements will be a long-standing example of what can be attained through hard work and dedication, which the Science Research teachers hope to instill in juniors, sophomores, and incoming freshmen. To the freshmen, Yasamin, Izzy, and Audrey each have words of advice:
Yasamin: Do what you love and want to. Don’t do what you think you should do. Doing something that you don’t love will make this a lot more difficult than it already is. You are on your own path to discovering truth and this is just as much as a chance to learn about yourself as it is a chance to uncover truth to the world. Embrace every moment of frustration and even failure because if you stick with it, there is a lot of relief on the other end of that Regeneron “submit” button no matter what happens. (Also coccolithophores are cool just spread the word…)
Izzy: Do something you love. If you don’t love it, then don’t do it, ya know? If you’re going to dedicate three years of your life to something, make it something that counts.
Audrey: Believe in yourself and make the most of the resources you have.