Exoplanet hunting, HIV-fighting and math garner big prizes for teens

a photo of the three winners of the 2019 Regerneron Science Talent Search
Ana Humphrey (center), Samuel Weismann (left) and Adam Ardeishar (right) took home first, second and third place in the 2019 Regeneron Science Talent Search.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Unsolved mysteries fascinate many of us. It’s why we watch crime shows and read mystery novels. Scientists get fascinated by unsolved mysteries, too. The top three winners in the 2019 Regeneron Science Talent Search all took on their own unsolved mysteries. One hunted for planets in other solar systems that may have snuck past big telescopes. Another uncovered hiding places where HIV — the virus that causes AIDS — likes to lurk. A third, frustrated by an “unsatisfying” answer, tackled a complicated math problem.

Ana Humphrey, 18, took home $250,000 and first prize. Samuel Weissman, 17, won second place and $175,000. Adam Ardeishar, 17, came in third, winning $150,000.

“Looking at today’s finalists and thinking about the students to come, I know we are in good hands,” says Maya Ajmera. “I am thrilled that, together with Regeneron, we are able to continue this competition, now in its 78th year, and provide these young people with a platform to showcase their science.” Ajmera is president and chief executive officer of Society for Science and the Public. This organization created the Science Talent Search in 1942 and still runs the competition. (The nonprofit society also publishes Science News and Science News for Students.)

Each year, the Science Talent Search brings together 40 students from across the United States. They show their science projects to the public and face a panel of judges as they compete for more than $2 million in prizes. The Science Talent Search is sponsored by Regeneron, a company that develops medicines for diseases such as cancer.

Spacing out

Ana Humphrey has always been fascinated by exoplanets — planets in other solar systems. But it’s not because her head is in the stars. Humphrey is a senior at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va. She wants to learn more about exoplanets so she can answer questions about how our own system formed.

“The only difference between an exo-solar system and our solar system is that we live in ours,” she says. By learning about exoplanets, where they are and how they form, Ana hopes to “learn about how we got here, and why our solar system is the way it is.”

Many scientists who scout for exoplanets look for transits. This is when a planet or moon passes in front of its star. If scientists have a telescope pointed in the right direction, they might see the star’s light dim a little as the planet subtly dims the star’s light.

But not all planets can be detected this way. Some small planets — those the size of Earth, for example — are too tiny. They don’t darken the starlight enough to be detected by today’s telescopes.

a photo of Ana Humphrey explaining her research
Ana Humphrey explains her exoplanet research at the Regeneron Science Talent Search on March 10.

Ana decided to hunt for some of these sneaky planets by building a computer program based on the so-called “packed system” hypothesis. This is the idea…

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