Meet High Schoolers from Orange County who are Solving the World’s Most Intractable Problems

The world’s largest STEM competition, the Regeneron International Science & Engineering Fair (ISEF) was scheduled for May 2020 in Anaheim, California… Over 50 local STEM leaders planned for 2 years and high school students from 80 countries made breakthrough innovations.  Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit early this year.  We were all deeply saddened that many science fairs around the world were cancelled and these talented young scientists, engineers and innovators were not able to meet in person.

To get a glimpse at the extraordinary talent, determination and sheer brainpower, we want to introduce you to the 4 ISEF finalists who qualified from Orange County, California.  They virtually competed in the Orange County Science & Engineering Fair (OCSEF) in March and April. In their own words, listen to how they are researching and designing breakthrough innovations in areas like antibiotic resistant bacteria, treatment options for neuropathy, and using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to combat cyber bullying.

Over 1,000 finalists from 55 countries are exhibiting in the virtual ISEF Exhibit Hall; register here starting Monday, May 18 and lasting all week.

Nadia Ansari, 10th grade, Sage Hill School in Tustin, CA

Nadia Ansari

“Three years ago I was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Small Fiber Neuropathy, since then I have had whole-body chronic pain. The main treatment options for neuropathy are either medications or opioids. While I tried some medications, I had numerous side effects with them. I researched two alternative treatment methods, photobiomodulation, and neuromodulation using a mouse model. I found that both treatment methods reduced inflammation, improved behavior, and reduced neuronal activation of the chronic pain regions of the brain.”

Watch Nadia give a short introduction to her research: ISEF 2020 Nadia Ansari

Daniel Feng, 11th grade, University High School in Irvine, CA

Daniel Feng

“A few years ago, I became interested in fighting antibiotic-resistant bacteria after my father contracted a dangerous infection. In my project, I demonstrated that the antimicrobial effects of Ceanothus leucodermis, a local Native American medical herb which I earlier discovered to have antibacterial properties, could be enhanced by changing the antibiotics’ spatial distribution on a molecular level.

I also developed a novel method to quantify the antibacterial strength of these molecules by combining a computer simulation with experimental data.”

Watch Daniel discuss his research here.

Arjun Neervannan, 12th grade, University High School in Irvine, CA

Arjun Neervannan

“I had often seen toxic comments and cyberbullying in online social media forums. After reading many articles about AI bias, I discovered that AI algorithms designed to filter these comments ended up censoring non-toxic comments without reasoning as to why they were censored. Intrigued, I set out to build a solution to this problem–a bias-free AI algorithm that would filter out toxic comments in a more transparent way.

My personal experiences from elementary school while working on group projects on Google Docs also gave an idea on the impact it would have on students and played a role in choosing this topic for research. Students would post toxic comments (while working in the group) on Google Docs and quickly delete them before teachers would see them. I wanted to come up with a transparent mechanism that would highlight the toxic language usage giving the students an opportunity to self correct or even flag this behavior instantaneously to the teacher.

A key breakthrough when I was running the experiment was discovering how I could use the hierarchical attention model and its inherent model transparency feature to “de-bias” the model. A key result for me was seeing that my model had achieved a 98% accuracy (AUC) and a significant bias reduction, indicating that my model was successful.”

Watch Arjun and hear about his work here.

William Pan, 11th grade, Northwood High School in Irvine, CA

William Pan

“In October, I attended a healthcare hackathon in San Francisco organized by MIT Hacking Medicine, and I made an amazing friend. She had an ostomy, a surgical opening on the belly to redirect bodily wastes, and inspired my work. She talked about how she was constantly affected by weak bonding between the skin and the ostomy bag which caused leakage of wastes and painful dermatitis.

So, to hopefully fix her challenge, I utilized new technology like tough hydrogels and chitosan bonding mechanism developed by the Zhao Lab at MIT and the Suo Group at Harvard, and created a hydrogel ostomy adhesive. I used to not be aware of this condition because I never met someone in my life with it, but now, I have realized that some of the most influential people I’ve met are affected by it. My best friend’s grandfather and my favorite science teacher from elementary school’s father had an ostomy, and I have never known about it.

But, I finally feel good that my work may have an enormous impact to everyone and people that matter in my life. Lastly, I would like to thank two specific people for my project. Thank you Hyunwoo Yuk from the Zhao Lab at MIT who always found time to answer my questions even when he is very very busy with his experiments and David Monge from Northwood High School who allowed me to work on my project in his classroom every single weekday from 7 am to 9:30 am. Without these two people, I would have never achieved this point, so I am very grateful of them.”

See William’s work here.



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