Student Scientists Investigate The Big Science Questions
Each year, approximately 1,800 high school science students take part in the Regeneron Science Talent Search (Regeneron STS), a program of Society for Science & the Public. This year’s projects ranged from studying the viscosity of molten lava to investigating more fuel efficient airplane designs to creating a computer model to predict refugee migrations. Senior Samuel Weissman analyzed the genetic makeup of two HIV patients, and senior Ana Humphrey created a math model to look for exoplanets. Ira talks with them about their winning projects, and you can learn more about their projects below.
Project Description: Ana used mathematical modeling to determine the existence and probable locations of exoplanets–planets outside our solar system–that may have been missed by missions of the Kepler Space Telescope.
Fun Fact: Ana loves David Bowie and frequently listens to his album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust (especially the songs “Starman” and “Moonage Daydream”) while conducting her research. She is also an avid baker and views cooking as a way of connecting to her Cuban heritage.
Project Description: Samuel studied the genetic makeup of HIV-infected immune cells to better understand “reservoirs” of treatment-resistant cells that remain in the patient’s body even after years of treatment.
Fun Fact: Samuel plays saxophone in his high school jazz band. His love of jazz came from his grandfather, who learned to play sax at the age of 65.
Ana Humphrey is a senior at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia.
Samuel Weissman is a senior at Harriton High School in Rosemont, Pennsylvania.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A quick note, this month marks a big anniversary for chemistry. 150 years since Dmitri Mendeleev– 150 years, wow, it seems like yesterday– he proposed the design for the periodic table.
So we’ve dropped a special episode into our podcast feed, Tales From the Table, as in periodic, with voices of the late Dr. Oliver Sacks and Nobel Laureate Sir Harry Kroto. So check it out, wherever you get your podcasts, about the 150th anniversary of Dmitri Mendeleev and the periodic table.
Next up, we regularly report when scientists make news discovering exoplanets or advances in HIV, like we did last week. But when those scientists are teenagers working in those fields, we are extra eager to talk with them. HIV and exoplanets were the topics of the projects that were the big winners of this year’s Regeneron Science Talent Search, a program of Society for Science and the Public. And each year, nearly 2,000 of the top science students gather in Washington to showcase their science projects. And two of those winners are here with us. Let me introduce them.
First, Ana Humphrey, a senior at TC Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia. Welcome to Science Friday, Ana.
ANA HUMPHREY: Thank you for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Now, you created a mathematical model to look for exoplanets using data from the Kepler telescope. Tell us how you did that.
ANA HUMPHREY: Yeah, so a lot of the way exoplanets have been found have been found with a process called the transit method. And the way that works is that a planet passes in front of its star, essentially blocking some of the light and creating a shadow. And we can measure that shadow and figure out, hey, there’s an exoplanet here.
The problem is, is that if that planet is too small, the shadow will be too small. It’ll be hard to find. Or if the planet goes above or below the star, we’ll end up not seeing the transit, because it won’t block the light from our perspective.
So we have a huge opportunity here to be finding planets that we might have missed, just based on the limitations of the method of finding them. And what I did was look for spaces where you could fit more planets, with a thought that it might help us identify places where we’d missed them.
IRA FLATOW: Hmm. Do you think you have found new exoplanets that were missed?
ANA HUMPHREY: Well, so what I was doing was looking for space to fit the planets, right? And so the big thing that that depends on is gravity. So gravity is a thing that pulls us down and keeps us on Earth, right? But gravity also pulls planets closer together.
And so the idea was, could I put another planet, like an imaginary planet, in-between two that we already knew about, without the gravitational force being so strong that it pulled the other planets off their orbits? And I found that there were, according to some numbers, 560 places where you could do this. So definitely some places to look.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. So do you think exoplanets might have life? What’s your personal view on that?
ANA HUMPHREY: You know, I think if there is somewhere else in the universe that has life, exoplanets are a very good bet. It’s really exciting, because I think that over the next few decades, within the beginning of my career, I think that we’ll start to have the capabilities for actually answering that question and looking for biosignatures that, once again, if they exist, would give us some indication of that.
IRA FLATOW: Tell us how you got interested in this.
ANA HUMPHREY: Yeah. So my freshman year in high school, I had been reading some articles. And I learned about researchers at Caltech that had predicted a ninth planet in our solar system, basically using math. And this was such a fascinating idea. I did more research, and it turns out Neptune was actually found in a similar way. Basically, astronomers had been looking at Uranus’ orbit– they had just figured out that it was a planet– and they couldn’t figure out why its orbit kept being different from what we expected it to be.
And it took two researchers, two mathematicians, Adams in England and Leverrier in France. And they both independently figured out, like pen to paper, that if there was another planet in our solar system, it would explain why Uranus’ orbit was not behaving the way we expected it to. So once again, they found a planet using math, and that planet was Neptune. And I was so hooked by this idea, that I knew I wanted to use math to find planets too. And exoplanets were a great thing to look for, because–
IRA FLATOW: That’s cool.
ANA HUMPHREY: Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And now, I know science, as you do, is all about trial and error. And I know you entered a big science fair before, and you ran into a bit of a problem with one of your projects. Want to share that with us?
ANA HUMPHREY: Yeah. So my first year working on the project, I was trying to replicate the process that had been used to find Neptune, which is looking at an orbit that we actually observe and comparing it to one that you model, like using a computer simulation. And then trying to fuse the differences between the two to predict a planet.
So I did a model of our own solar system, just sort of as a proof of concept. And because of computational time, I only modeled the first four planets, so Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. So I didn’t include Jupiter. And it turns out, when you’re doing a gravitational model– gravity is a factor of mass and distance. So a really large object or objects that are really close together are going to have very large gravitational force. As you know, Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system, and I did not include it in my model.
IRA FLATOW: Ooh, ooh.
ANA HUMPHREY: Yes. So I learned– of course, during, I had presented at a big science fair that year, the International Science and Engineering Fair, also actually run by the Society for Science and the Public. And, well, let’s just say that my judges were very keenly aware that I did not include Jupiter. Well, now I have a saying that I’ve learned from that mistake. And now I always say, “don’t get Jupitered,” because I always want to be prepared and make sure that I’m thinking about all the possible factors that could affect my result.
IRA FLATOW: Do you got a hashtag for that, #dontgetjupitered?
Now you do.
ANA HUMPHREY: Now I do. There you go.
IRA FLATOW: I want to bring on another of the winning students– Samuel Weissman, a senior at Harriton High School in Rosemont, Pennsylvania. Welcome to Science Friday.
SAMUEL WEISSMAN: Thank you. Thank you for having us.
IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. And Sam, for your project, you studied HIV and something called reservoirs. Tell us about what you were studying.
SAMUEL WEISSMAN: Mm-hmm. I was trying to understand why our current medication for HIV doesn’t cure the virus. So when our current therapies for HIV came out in the late ’80s, early ’90s, they transformed the virus from a death sentence into more of a chronic illness. But they didn’t cure the virus, because whenever people with HIV stopped taking medication, the infection returns. And that’s because of what we call the reservoir, which is just our name for HIV-infected cells that managed to persist, even after decades of treatment.
And so I was trying to understand how these HIV-infected cells of the reservoir, how they persist, even after decades. And so I was looking at the genetic makeup of the virus over about 10 years in two subjects being treated.
IRA FLATOW: And what did you discover?
SAMUEL WEISSMAN: And so I found that the reservoir didn’t persist through a very stable force that we used to think. We used to believe that– and this had started to be disproved over the past three years or so. But we used to think that the reservoir was very stable, and that HIV managed to survive, despite all this treatment over decades, by kind of flying under the radar.
HIV-infected cells wouldn’t do anything that the body could associate with HIV. And the immune system, when it’s trying to eliminate invaders, germs, it looks for things that aren’t natural. And so by just hiding out, HIV was able to persist. But I found that that wasn’t a complete picture. And that actually, over time, the body could recognize the virus. So that’s a good thing for people with HIV, because it shows that our body actually does have the potential to recognize and clear HIV-infected cells in the reservoir.
But the problem is that I found that a force called clonal expansion is vital to the persistence of the reservoir and that it happens in extremely high frequency. And clonal expansion is just– you know how all the cells in your body are– not all, but a lot of cells in your body are dividing all the time? That’s how your skin is constantly reproducing itself. When a cell infected with HIV divides, not only does the human cell divide, but it carries the HIV with it. And so HIV can multiply through natural cell division in your body. And that process is going on even in individuals being treated for HIV, and it leads to the persistence of the reservoir.
IRA FLATOW: I think that explains it. Last week there was the announcement about a patient that was HIV-free without drugs after receiving a bone marrow transplant. I’m sure you heard about that. What do you make of that story?
SAMUEL WEISSMAN: When I read that, I was actually very hopeful and optimistic, because it shows that a virus that used to be a deadly virus and a very scary one back 40 years ago, now, for the second time, we’ve been able to cure it. And so it’s a huge advance for science.
In terms of whether that cure itself is usable over a wide scale for most people with HIV, it’s probably not, because it’s a fairly lethal procedure and you only use it for people who need it anyway for cancer. But it’s reflective of the advances in science we’ve had over the past decades. And it reflects the fact that HIV isn’t so incurable. The reservoir isn’t so persistent that we won’t ever be able to get rid of it.
IRA FLATOW: Let me ask you. You know, there might be some students listening that are interested. But starting a project like this might sound too big and daunting. What advice do you have for them on how to get started?
SAMUEL WEISSMAN: Mm-hmm.
ANA HUMPHREY: Yeah.
SAMUEL WEISSMAN: I think–
IRA FLATOW: Let me ask– Ana, go first.
ANA HUMPHREY: Yeah, so it can definitely be daunting. So I mentioned that I started researching exoplanets my freshman year. I actually hadn’t taken physics at that point, so I had a lot to learn. But basically what I did was I started with this idea. And the idea that I described, it sort of took a little while to come to light. It took a few months. But I just kept track. I have a research notebook. I log very regularly. And I just kept track of all my ideas.
I reached out to other students. I actually reached out to a past student who had participated in this competition that year. I reached out to as many scientists as I could and just had conversations. And the more conversations you have with people, the more ideas you build over time. So it’s really just like coming up with your initial inspiration, and then continuing to develop and to develop and to develop it until you feel like you’re at a place where you can really start doing the research itself.
IRA FLATOW: Sam, are there other big science issues that you are interested or concerned about? I know today there are climate strikes going on. Does that kind of thing interest you?
SAMUEL WEISSMAN: Yeah. I think that global warming and climate change are huge problems affecting our time and that we can find solutions to them through science. And I think that that’s a huge area for people aspiring to make a difference in the world for science. There is a lot of ways to do that. And I think researching climate change and potential solutions to it is a huge area to make a difference.
IRA FLATOW: And you know what’s interesting about this? Let me first remind everybody that this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios talking about science with Samuel Weissman and Ana Humphrey. You know what I find interesting as someone who’s been around a while and watching a lot of this happen? Back in the day, it was anti-war protests that I was watching. Same students, sort of. Students seem to be less fearful about speaking out on it these days. They seem to be saying, I’m going to go out there and I’m not afraid to show myself in public and speak out. Do you agree with that?
ANA HUMPHREY: Yeah, I definitely agree. So I actually have a nonprofit called Watershed Warriors. And we go and we teach environmental science to elementary school students, particularly fifth graders in our region. And one of the remarkable things that I see is that when you tell students that they do have the ability to make a difference, that they can come up with a solution that can actually be implemented and actually have an impact on their community, like that, they haven’t been told that before, right? They don’t know that what they do can matter. And they light up.
And I’ve seen fifth graders coming up with some of the solutions for local environmental problems that adults are coming up with. The creativity and the fearlessness is incredible once you tell them that it’s possible for them to do something that matters. So I think that it’s amazing that we’re seeing a lot of students across the country and the world stand up and take advantage of the voice that they have to make their world a little bit better.
IRA FLATOW: Sam, do you agree?
SAMUEL WEISSMAN: Yeah. I think that the more people who are involved generally has a huge impact on movements, because not only does it make the movement larger, but people have different ideas. They come from different backgrounds and cultures and experiences, and they all have different ideas. And they can really develop a movement into something greater than what it was before.
IRA FLATOW: Do you think that the publicity that you’re getting here and for winning your prizes– do you look forward to that kind of leadership model for you, Ana?
ANA HUMPHREY: Definitely. I mentioned before that I had talked to past students from the science talent search. I’ve actually met a number of students who’ve done this competition over the years. And honestly, they are some of the people who’ve inspired me to do research. And the fact that I can be that source of inspiration for someone else is a dream come true. If at least one more person goes out and researches exoplanets or whatever area they’re interested in, I will have accomplished my job, right?
IRA FLATOW: And, Sam, you agree?
SAMUEL WEISSMAN: Yeah. I really like working with people and trying to inspire them to have the same passion in whatever area of science or policy or whatever they’re interested in, because I think that when young people, especially, are really interested in something, they are willing to work really hard and try to make a difference in the world. And so I really appreciate the chance to inspire people, along with all the other Regeneron Science Talent Search finalists, who I think did amazing work, and I think, in their communities, are also working with people to inspire the next generation of scientists.
IRA FLATOW: Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, she won a big science award 10 years ago. Did you know that?
SAMUEL WEISSMAN: Mm-hmm.
ANA HUMPHREY: Yeah. She was an ISEF alumni, I think– alumna.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Does that give you any ideas?
ANA HUMPHREY: We’ll see.
I might stick to science. But you never know, right?
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Well, I want to congratulate both of you. Congratulations on your prizes. So you’re both winners in this year’s Regeneron Science Talent Search, a program of Society for Science and the Public. And thank you for taking time to be with us today.
SAMUEL WEISSMAN: Thank you.
ANA HUMPHREY: Thank you for having us.
IRA FLATOW: Samuel Weissman, senior at Harriton High School in Rosemont, Pennsylvania. And Ana Humphrey, senior at TC Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia.