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Competitions / Education / STEM

These 2 NoVa high schoolers are finalists in Regeneron’s Science Talent Search

Emily Ocasio and Ethan Zhou discussed their experiences leading up to the annual STEM competition, in which they are competing for a $250,000 grand prize.

(L to R) Emily Ocasio and Ethan Zhou. (Courtesy photos, composite created using Canva)
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Timothy Qian was a top finalist in the 2022 Regeneron Science Talent Search. He instead placed in the 2021 competition, while Pravalika Gayatri Putalapattu placed in the 2022 iteration. The article has since been corrected. (3/30/23, 12:28 p.m.)

Two local high school students are among the top 40 finalists in the Regeneron Science Talent Search, the nation’s oldest science and math competition for high school seniors.

Emily Ocasio, who attends the New School of Northern Virginia and Ethan Zhou, who attends  McLean High School, are among the top 40 finalists selected from over 1,900 applicants. The competition dates back to the 1940s and honors students from across the country with noteworthy STEM projects. Each finalist will receive $25,000, and the top 10 finalists will receive prizes from $40,000 to $250,000, courtesy of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals.

Previous winners have included Nobel Prize honorees and MacArthur Foundation fellows.  The DMV area has a history of finalists, with Timothy Qian of Rockville, Maryland’s Montgomery Blair High School taking fifth place and winning $90,000 in the 2021 competition. Last year, Pravalika Gayatri Putalapattu of Alexandria, Virginia’s Thomas. Jefferson High SChool for Science and Technology won seventh place and nabbed $70,000.

Ocasio’s project used an AI model to match publicly available FBI data with archival Boston Globe articles to examine hidden biases about homicide victims in media coverage.  She believes that AI can be safely used to help society answer complex social science questions.

“I initially wanted to work on answering a different question with the AI model, but the data set I wanted to work with was too expensive at $15,000,” Ocasio told Technical.ly.

In addition to competing in science and math competitions, Ocasio is CEO of GirlsComputingLeague, a nonprofit dedicated to providing high-technology education in emerging fields to all students through hackathons, AI summits and coding clubs. Because she has a disability, Ocasio is mindful of what projects and subjects she prioritizes — including how to make the world a more equitable place.

Zhou worked on the math theory behind machine learning and analyzed how it performs when predicting something very unpredictable. His research helps people build better mathematical models to make more accurate predictions, such as anticipating weather and stock market changes.

“The competition has been very rewarding and helped me think more deeply,” Zhou said.

Zhou’s love for math started in middle school, when he entered math competitions and ultimately discovered a passion for both the work and the people doing it.

“[I found the] math problems really beautiful and the community really supportive and ambitious, with everyone pushing each other to be better,” he said.

The Regeneron Science Talent Search is organized and presented by the Society for Science, a DC-based organization focused on expanding access to STEM education and literacy. Maya Ajmera, the organization’s president and CEO, said that she  has seen how competing in the talent search helps “builds confidence — especially for people of color, young women and others who face roadblocks.”

“[The competition] not only teaches you how to be a better scientist, but also teaches you skills that will help you in any career,” Ajmera added.

Ocasio and Zhou will attend a celebration in DC with other finalists, scientists and engineers. The top 10 finalists will be announced on March 15.

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