The Regeneron Science Talent Search is one of the most esteemed science and math competitions in the nation, and two of this year’s finalists are Eagle Scouts.
Vivian Wu and Ryan Lee, both from Palo Alto, California, made it all the way to the top 40 of this year’s competition, no small feat when you consider that the talent search regularly draws more than 1,900 entries.
Both Vivian, an 18-year-old Eagle Scout from Troop 4057, and Ryan, an 18-year-old Eagle Scout from Troop 57, say their time in Scouting helped them excel at the Regeneron contest … and beyond.
“Scouting has taught me countless lessons on leadership, collaboration, kindness, respect, responsibility and so much more, and I’ve been able to apply these lessons to things like school and the Regeneron Science Talent Search,” says Vivian.
“There aren’t many activities in middle school — and even in high school — where you can lead a group of your peers, take initiative or feel a sense of responsibility,” says Ryan. “Scouting is one of those few activities, and I quickly gained those skills through the various leadership positions I held and just by being around older Scouts.”
What is the Regeneron Science Talent Search?
The Regeneron Science Talent Search is designed to recognize and empower the “most promising young scientists who are developing ideas that could solve society’s most urgent challenges.”
It started in 1942 as the Westinghouse Science Talent Search and is now sponsored by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and the non-profit Society for Science. It is open to students who have completed independent, individual science research with data and results that are submitted in a research paper and through a series of essays.
Past winners have gone on to win such honors as Nobel Prizes and MacArthur Foundation Fellowships, and Scouts have a history of performing well at the event.
Vivian’s work on honeybees
Vivan investigated whether formic acid, a popular agent used by beekeepers to kill varroa mites, negatively affects the foraging abilities of honeybees. She used radio frequency identification tags to track the number and duration of flights of both developing and mature worker bees, then analyzed her data using an algorithm she wrote herself.
The data showed that test bees that had been exposed to formic acid experienced declines in the duration and number of foraging trips and the number of days spent foraging compared to her control bees that were not exposed to formic acid.
“Varroa mites are a major contributor to the collapse of honeybee colonies,” says Vivian. “However, there is very little information on how the application of formic acid impacts honeybee foraging performance. (The data) suggests that formic acid treatment during nectar flow could negatively affect honey production and potentially also the long-term health of honeybee colonies.”
Ryan’s work on cellular neurodegeneration
Ryan studied the effects of impaired mitochondria (a cell’s energy source) on neurodegeneration — the loss of structure or function of neurons. Neurons can change their shape and size in response to new experiences, a property known as structural plasticity.
“The ability for neurons to be structurally plastic is fundamental to basic human behavior; but it is especially important for learning, memory, and our cognitive abilities,” says Ryan.
He used fruit fly circadian neurons, which expand at dawn and retract at dusk, from genetically modified fruit flies with reduced levels of a protein critical for mitochondrial fission — a process that keeps mitochondria healthy. He found that there is a loss of plasticity when the protein is removed, impairing the fission and leading to a complete loss of synapses as the fruit flies aged.
“Both a loss of structural plasticity and synapses are implicated in many neurodegenerative diseases including Parkinson’s,” says Ryan.
Ryan’s research could someday help doctors find treatments for such diseases.
Vivian is the co-captain of her high school’s girls’ basketball team and also a member of a STEM team. In her spare time, she volunteers for a local nonprofit translating STEM materials into Chinese.
She is headed to Yale University.
“Becoming more responsible through Scouting has helped me stay on top of my schoolwork and manage my time well,” she says. “Scouting has also instilled in me a strong work ethic, which has helped me pursue my scientific research.”
Ryan is a member of his school’s robotics team and also co-captain of the Technology Student Association TEAMS Competition club. He is also a search-and-rescue responder for California Emergency Services and will be attending Brown University, where he plans to double major in neuroscience and philosophy.
“I can confidently say that Scouting has been pivotal in every aspect of my life,” he says. “Scouting also gave me the foundational skills of time management, organization, perseverance and goal setting that have helped me succeed in school as well as in extracurriculars like robotics and research.”