Meet the Seattle-area teen geeks that just won awards at an international science fair

The Washington-state high school scientists who traveled to Atlanta last week to compete in the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). The state sent 23 students in person and virtually to the event, and they brought home 23 awards and honors. (WSSEF Photo)

The bleak and all-too-common spectacle of roadkill was upsetting to Vedant Srinivas — particularly when his uncle and cousin’s beloved German Shepherd-Rottweiler mix was fatally hit by a car.

More importantly, the losses made the high school student wonder if he could do something about it. What if Srinivas could stop the pet owners’ broken hearts, save wildlife and deflect the economic impacts caused by the collisions?

This month his efforts were rewarded. The sophomore from Eastlake High School in Sammamish, Wash., brought home a $5,000, first place grand award for the category of Environmental Engineering from the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). He also received first place and $1,000 from the Central Intelligence Agency — yes, that CIA.

ISEF is the world’s largest high school science competition and drew 1,750 young scientists to last week’s event, which was held both in Atlanta and online. This year, Washington state sent 23 students to the prestigious fair, and they brought home 23 awards, with some earning multiple honors.

Vedant Srinivas, 10th-grade student from Eastlake High School and ISEF participant. (Photo courtesy of Srinivas)

For his project, Srinivas developed an AI-powered warning system to alert drivers when animals are near roadways. Wildlife are spotted using devices with visual and thermal cameras, which generate images that are analyzed using algorithms trained to recognize animals including deer, bear and cougars. The system can also determine whether the animals are heading towards a road.

If there’s potential for a collision, a radio signal is transmitted to a sign about a mile up the road, triggering flashing lights that caution drivers to slow down. The system is powered by solar panels.

“There are so many problems we face environmentally,” Srinivas said. And unfortunately, “technology has not been used much” to address them.

Before reaching ISEF, students must compete in regional and state fairs. Projects from the Washington team this year included research into the effects of probiotics on canines, speeding up the decomposition of bioplastics by creating them with mushroom spores, and incorporating features of bird tails on aircraft to improve flight efficiencies.

The student scientists bring open, creative minds to the world’s challenges.

“They think, ‘There’s a problem. How do I solve it?’ And they go forth and create these wonderful concepts.”

The kids “haven’t been told ‘no.’ They think, ‘There’s a problem. How do I solve it?’ And they go forth and create these wonderful concepts,” said Caroline Stein, treasurer for the Washington State Science and Engineering Fair (WSSEF).

The WSSEF is a volunteer-led, donor-supported organization that helps organize fairs and events in the state, partnering with regional fairs.

The student scientists gain so much from these events, said Gary Foss, a leader with the Central Sound Regional Science and Engineering Fair.

“Being a geek can be kind of lonely sometimes,” Foss said. Through ISEF, the students “discover that there is a world of students who love science just like they do.”

This was Srinivas’ second attempt engineering a solution to preventing roadkill. Last year, he presented a strategy for scaring animals away from roadways. Working with a mentor, Dr. Fraser Shilling of the University of California, Davis, he flipped the fix, warning the drivers instead. In the intervening months he strengthened his coding and AI skills, training his system with 200,000 images.

Srinivas calls his solution Eqwis. He’s testing the system in Nevada in an area that’s home to wild horses that were being hit by vehicles. Srinivas has spoken to transportation departments in Washington and elsewhere who are interested in his approach.

Each device is about $3,400, and he estimates it would cost about $20,000 per mile for adequate coverage. It’s a deal compared to the $100,000 per mile to build fences and $4 million spent on wildlife bridges over or under highways.

At the ISEF event, Srinivas was able to share his work with judges and participants from across the globe.

“They saw my solution and said it looks really interesting,” he said, including people concerned about wildlife in the Amazon and feral cats in Thailand. “It gave me more confidence that the whole world need this.”

You can learn more here about all of the Washington students who competed at ISEF. And we asked some of the greater Seattle participants to share more about their research. Here are their responses:

Pinyu Liao, an 11th-grade student from Inglemoor High School and ISEF participant. (Photo courtesy of Liao)

Pinyu Liao, 11th grade, Inglemoor High School, “Exploiting Plasmid-Mediated Resistance: Discovery of Small-Molecule Inhibitors for the Artificial Activation of the Kid-Kis Toxin-Antitoxin System in Plasmid R1” 

Grand award: 2nd place in Microbiology; special award: University of Arizona scholarship

Why were you drawn to your area of research? I was first introduced to the issue of antibiotic resistance when my grandmother died from a bacterial infection in 2019, and I learned about the lack of research in antibiotic development due to a lack of profitability. So, as a kid with nothing to lose, I began my research into antibiotics with the goal of targeting plasmid-mediated resistance!

Do you have plans to take this work further? Yes, definitely! This summer, I will be going to the MIT Research Science Institute (RSI) program, and I’m excited to hopefully be able to continue my work in the laboratory. I’ve always wanted to do wet lab research, and it’s really been a long time coming since beginning with my first meta-analysis and review paper, computational drug discovery, and this time, I hope to continue by doing wet lab research!

What do you enjoy about scientific research? There’s so much I love about research, but my favorite part is the discovery aspect of doing research. It’s an amazing experience to get to answer your own questions that you have about science, and I’ve grown so much from that. Also, the community in research is amazing – our Washington State team is the best, and I’ve met so many cool people from research!

Evan Kim, an 11th-grade student from Tesla Stem High School and ISEF participant. (Photo courtesy of Kim)

Evan Kim, 11th grade, Tesla Stem High School,“ScGAN: A Generative Adversarial Network To Predict Hypothetical Superconductors”

Grand award: 3rd place in Material Sciences

Why were you drawn to your area of research? I love physics because it both explains our world exactly and quantitatively and is at the forefront of our technological innovations. And when I was browsing unsolved problems Wikipedia page, the unsolved problem of high temperature superconductors caught my eye because it embodies both these values–trying to explain them and trying to find them.

Do you have plans to take this work further? This year I computationally generated a list of candidates for high temperature superconductivity, and so I plan to physically test out my predicted superconductors.

What do you enjoy about scientific research? I enjoy the fact that when you do scientific research, you’re the first to ever do whatever you did and that you’ve also brought new knowledge into the world. The idea that my work could help generations down the road is so exciting for me.

Kosha Upadhyay, an 10th-grade student from Bellevue High School and ISEF participant. (Photo courtesy of Upahdhyay)

Kosha Upadhyay, 10th grade, Bellevue High School,“Cognitive Profiling and Personalized Therapy Recommendation for Dementia Through a Language-Aware Multi-Model Artificially Intelligent System”

Grand award: 3rd Place in Behavioral and Social Sciences; special award: third award, American Psychological Association

Why were you drawn to this area of research? Through volunteering at a memory care center, I learned about dementia, a fatal disease threatening millions of senior citizens globally, and found the root cause being lack of proper techniques for profiling and therapy recommendations. Witnessing the day-to-day struggles of people living with dementia inspired me to find a solution to address this.

Do you have plans to take this work further? I have created a system which uses natural language processing, and a neural network to think like a healthcare provider involved in dementia profiling and personalized care. I envision a future where my smart Alexa skill will substitute healthcare experts in memory care centers or at home to offer low-cost care and high quality of life to people living with dementia.

What do you enjoy about scientific research? Research transports me into a world of possibilities, making me invent novel solutions, for problems that seem impossible to solve. Research is an empowering platform for me to redefine the industry standards, learn way beyond academic norms, and make a difference in not just one person’s life but the whole community.

Anjali Sreenivas, an 11th-grade student from Tesla Stem High School and ISEF participant. (Photo courtesy of Sreenivas)

Anjali Sreenivas, 11th grade, Tesla Stem High School, “A Machine Learning Approach to Identifying Blood-Based Biomarkers for Differential Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease”

Grand award: 4th place in Computational Biology; special award: Honorable Mention, American Statistical Association

Why were you drawn to your area of research? I have always been interested in both computer science and biology and was certain I wanted to pursue something at the intersection of these two fields, but what really drew me to studying Alzheimer’s Disease in particular was my grandma, who was unfortunately diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s just a couple years ago. I had the privilege of visiting her in India this past summer and watched her struggle to locate/walk to the kitchen, remember what she last ate, and even recall my name. I wanted to contribute something to the field that could prevent future generations from having to watch their loved ones struggle in the same way.

Do you have plans to take this work further? I am definitely planning to continue my research, in part by reaching out to other study authors to try to compile an even larger dataset (one of the greatest challenges/limitations in the field) upon which my machine learning/analysis pipeline can be executed on. The goal of my work has been to find reproducible and robust biomarkers that can be used for differential and timely diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease via a simple blood test, as well as to identify potential therapeutic pathways, so the more data that is obtained, the more confidence we can have in the findings.

What do you enjoy about scientific research? The sheer idea of discovery and exploration, the mind-blowing sensation of understanding after months of reading through dense research articles, the feeling of carving your own path forward to make a contribution to some of the world’s most pressing problems, and the network of like-minded and passionate individuals you become a part of are only some of the many aspects that make scientific research so worthwhile and unparalleled.

Harish Krishnakumar, an 11th-grade student from Tesla Stem High School and ISEF participant. (Photo courtesy of Krishnakumar)

Harish Krishnakumar, 11th grade, Tesla Stem High School, “Analysis of Ring Galaxies Detected Using Deep Learning With Real and Simulated Data”

Special awards: Patent and Trademark Office Society award, scholarship to the King Faud University in Saudi Arabia

Why were you drawn to your area of research? In 6th grade, I participated in a competition called Science Olympiad. There, I did the astronomy event, where I studied gaseous nebulae and far-away galaxies. Ever since then, I’ve been hooked on studying objects outside our solar system. I decided to combine my interest in computer science with my passion for astronomy to try to advance our knowledge of ring galaxies, which still remain extremely understudied.

What are you interested in tackling next? In future research, I would love to apply my machine learning model to more unclassified datasets, do further studies into improving my machine learning model, and study more about the properties of rings themselves. However, I would also love to explore more about the applications of machine learning in astronomy, and tackle a new project which uses and expands the same skill set that I’ve learnt this year. 

What do you enjoy about scientific research? I love the fact that research can be done by anyone: previously, I had thought that astronomical research could only be done with complex instruments by experienced individuals, but this year, I found that even a high-school student could take a stab at it with the right motivation. Another thing I enjoyed, contrary to what most would think, was the hurdles I encountered – the satisfaction I felt after solving a problem that had been bugging me for days was amazing!

Druhin Bhowal (left) and Arihant Singh, 11th-grade students from Tesla Stem High School and ISEF participants. (Photos courtesy of Bhowal and Singh)

Druhin Bhowal and Arihant Singh, 11th grade, Tesla Stem High School, “It’s Flaming Out: Using Artificial Intelligence to Emulate Critical Aspects of Wildfire Growth”

Grand award: 4th place in Earth and Environmental Sciences; special awards: Arizona State University scholarships

Why were you drawn to your area of research? It is critical to realize that humanity has only one world upon which have lived and died every king, peasant, magnate, pauper, saint and sinner that ever was. To protect this world should be our foremost initiative, which is why we conducted our research in this field.

Do you have plans to take this work further? We have plans to take this work further, including utilizing an Asynchronous-Advantage-Actor-Critic architecture to augment our neural net, integrating our model with fire risk systems, and incorporating sub-models for such phenomena as fire-generated weather. 

What do you enjoy about scientific research? There are the awards, speeches and honorifics to anticipate. However, these are never an integral part of a true scientist’s exploratory drive. It is the feeling of discovering something new, overturning an existent finding, or creating something destined to benefit the world, no matter how minutely.

Rohak Jain, 10th-grade student from Interlake High School and ISEF participant. (Photo courtesy of Jain)

Rohak Jain, 10th grade, Interlake High School, “Elucidating the Mechanisms of Drug-Induced Hearing Loss: Characterization of Interferon Gamma Signaling as a Regulator of Hair Cell Regeneration and Inflammation in Zebrafish” 

Why were you drawn to your area of research? My research’s exploration of drug-induced hearing loss primarily stems from the current lack of USFDA-approved drugs designed to treat it; further, considering that upwards of 10 million U.S. industrial workers are exposed to ototoxic compounds annually, the widened scope of this issue quickly attracted my interest.

Do you have plans to take this work further? Currently, I am looking at validating the gene co-expression trends I found through my computational analyses with a variety of experimental approaches, which include in-situ hybridization and CRISPR gene knockouts. Fluorescent labeling of target genes will ideally allow for real-time monitoring of their expression and localization along the model organism.

What do you enjoy about scientific research? Going through each of the steps in the scientific method is something I find quite intellectually stimulating. Striving to constantly ask new questions and challenge myself as a critical thinker are qualities that I feel are invaluable to develop early-on.

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