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High School STEM Competition Finalists Discuss Their Innovative Projects

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Some really talented high school seniors are facing off in a competition run by the biotech company Regeneron and the Society for Science. We talked to three of them.

VIVIAN YEE: I'm Vivian Yee. I'm 17 years old. And I'm currently a senior in high school. I'm from Beverly Hills, Mich.

DASIA TAYLOR: Hi. I'm Dasia Taylor. I'm also 17 years old and a senior at Iowa City West High.

EDGAR SOSA: Hi. My name is Edgar Sosa. I'm from Greenwich, Conn. I'm 20 years old. I'm currently a senior at Greenwich High School.

MARTIN: Edgar, Dasia and Vivian are among 40 finalists who just might change the world with their innovations. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money is at stake. Vivian Yee's project focuses on COVID-19.

YEE: So what I did was I analyzed trends and modeled the evolution of COVID-19 spread in communities with different levels of social vulnerability.

MARTIN: What does that model tell you?

YEE: Yeah. So the model allows - whoever is trying to employ the model, it tells them how COVID-19 spreads within communities of different levels of social vulnerability. Are there greater rates of mortality? Are there lower rates of recovery and things like that? So it allows you to get a better comparison between a lot of communities.

MARTIN: So is this a tool that you think different municipalities can use, hospitals? Who do you imagine employing this?

YEE: One of the really great things about the social vulnerability index is that there is a calculated score for every county. So you can really examine it down to a county level and compare between counties. So I think, from local all the way to federal public health officials, epidemiologists, this can be a very important tool to help them kind of guide their public health experts with scientific data and that critical analysis that would create the most effective public health policies and programs.

MARTIN: Wow. OK. Dasia, tell me about your project.

TAYLOR: I created color-changing sutures. Through research, I found that lesser developed countries disproportionately are affected by these things called surgical site infections. So after you have surgery - for example, women in Africa who have caesarean sections are more vulnerable to getting an infection that turns deadly. And then they end up passing away. Well, if you don't catch that infection early, then that person is more likely to pass away. So what my sutures do is they change color with the changes of pH to tell the patient and the doctor that this person is indicating an infection. So the impact of my sutures could quite literally revolutionize the way we treat wounds in developing countries where the surgical site infections are at rise.

MARTIN: That is amazing. How did you key in on this problem?

TAYLOR: I was just reading these articles on Science News for Students, I believe. And I came across this article called "Smart Sutures," which they used some really, really fancy technology to monitor the basic principles of wound healing. And I just thought to myself, like, the people who could really use this technology won't be able to afford it or have access to it because you're using all of these really fancy things. And the equity part of my brain, it just didn't sit right with me. So I did some research and found that, you know, surgical site infections were huge. I didn't know how huge. I didn't know the numbers or anything. But once I found them, I was like, oh, yeah. This is something that I have to do. This is kind of like a moral responsibility at this point.

MARTIN: So cool. OK. That brings us to you, Edgar. Tell us about your project. I mean, this came out of your family's own experience with their coffee farm in Guatemala, right?

SOSA: It did, actually. Coffee rust is a fungus that has been killing coffee for several years now. It basically kills the plant by depleting it from its nutrients. Back in 2013, my family and I used to run a coffee farm in Guatemala. During that year, our farm was completely wiped out by this fungus. And that's how, basically, I became a victim of the fungus. And two years after, we lost the farm. I moved to the United States. And two years ago, I started my research in which I used a model fungus, because coffee rust has not been made in the United States, and metal oxide nanoparticles to create a fuller treatment that can stop the fungus from killing the plant. And also, in my research, I discovered that coffee rust is not only depleting the coffee plant from its nutrients, but it's also creating a biofilm.

MARTIN: This is copper. You found out that copper is the element that makes a difference here.

SOSA: So copper was the one that showed the most promising results. During my research, I discovered that coffee rust might be creating a biofilm, which causes a plant to die quicker than we expected.

MARTIN: Well, I'm kind of gobsmacked by all three of you and your projects and your discoveries. You are part of dozens of finalists in the Regeneron Science Talent Search. Do you have anything to say to one another?

YEE: Yeah. I guess I could go first. It's truly inspiring to me, all these different people. As you can probably see from our projects, we do come from a great diversity of fields in science. And I think one thing that unifies us all is that we all have this mindset to want to use STEM to make the world a better place or explore things that we're truly curious about.

TAYLOR: I echo Vivian. It has also been really inspiring to see other students kind of doing the same thing I'm doing. It makes me feel like not such an outcast (laughter). So it's been really awesome to get connected with Vivian and Edgar. And I just - I really love their projects and their personal stories.

MARTIN: Wow. We are impressed with you three and all the finalists. Congratulations to all of you. And the results, the winners will be announced next week. But we wish you guys all the best, not just in this competition, but in your life. I have no doubt that you are, all three, off to great things. Vivian Yee, Dasia Taylor and Edgar Sosa. Thank you so much for talking with us.

YEE: Thank you for having us.

TAYLOR: Yeah, same. This was so awesome.

SOSA: Yeah. Thank you. I really appreciate the opportunity.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEEN DAZE'S "COMFORT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.