By Hayley Crandall

Nearly 2,000 high school seniors from all across America entered science projects to compete in the 79th Regeneron Science Talent Search. Forty made it to the finals — two of which call Milwaukee home.

Amogh Bhatnagar, 18, from University School of Milwaukee and Jake Yasonik, 18, from Homestead High School were both named finalists. They will now compete for more than $1.8 million in awards and be honored as promising future scientists.

The program, which is produced by the Society for Science & the Public, is a nationwide competition where high school seniors submit research projects that present solutions for a variety of worldly problems.

The projects submitted range greatly – from artificial intelligence to medical procedures to disaster relief – according to the press release.

Amogh Bhatnagar Fact Sheet. (Credit: Regeneron Science Talent Search)

Bhatnagar’s project focuses on one of the hottest American topics, which is especially prevalent during election season: health care costs.

After hundreds of hours of research, Bhatnagar developed a way to examine hospital data in order to determine which surgical procedure for appendectomies would be the most cost effective. While appendectomy is the used example, the method could be applied to various surgeries.

The idea came to Bhatnagar during a high school debate class about medical care costs. He initially started the research his freshman year, but it wasn’t until last summer that he really set his focus on completing it.

“We had a debate club in my school and one of the big issues we were debating was health care,” said Bhatnagar. “One day, one student was talking about how there will be procedures and we won’t know which will be the cheapest, so I started looking into how we choose treatments.”

Jake Yasonik Fact Sheet. (Credit: Regeneron Science Talent Search)

Yasonik’s project tackles the world of trial and error testing for pharmaceuticals.

Yasonik developed a computer-based system that can generate and optimize molecules with pharmaceutical potential “from scratch,” which can possibly be used to help streamline the development of drugs. The method works to cut down on the “trial and error” stage in drug development, which is crucial, Yasonik explained.

This research project started for Yasonik a week after his first science fair in the 10th grade, which didn’t pan out like he planned. Research spanned three to four months, Yasonik said, and the following school year was dedicated to completing the model.

“I did my first science fair project in 10th grade and that didn’t go so well,” said Yasonik. “But I started literally the week after it with this project. I just Googled ‘AI in medicine’ and started reading everything I could find. I read about 60 research papers in total.”

The competition began with 1,993 student entries, according to a press release. From there, it is narrowed down to 300 scholars. Through another selection process and analysis of projects, 40 finalists are chosen.

“The Regeneron Science Talent Search finalists are the stewards of our future,” said Maya Ajmera, president and CEO of Society for Science & the Public in a press release. “These finalists are the top young scientists of our country today and they give me great hope for what lies ahead.”

Finalists are typically flown to Washington, D.C. where they undergo a week of presenting and judging along with opportunities to socialize with established scientists. The award ceremony that follows is black tie gala-style; however, with the COVID-19 pandemic, for the first time ever, the entire competition shifted to an online format.

While this was in best interest for everyone within the competition’s safety, it did have its ups and downs, according to both Yasonik and Bhatnagar.

“Initially I thought okay, it’s all virtual,” said Yasonik. “But then seeing all the time and effort that Society for Science and Public put into it was insane. They sent us backdrops, laptops and lights to actually put this together. I can’t believe how much they did.”

“I don’t know if the virtual program made it harder or easier,” said Bhatnagar.

“I do think that it made it more difficult to connect with the other finalists, but I think the Society did a really, really good job making events and building connections.”

The public exhibition took place Saturday, July 25 and allowed for people to attend virtually and learn about the contestants and their submitted projects. The award ceremony followed on Wednesday, July 29 via a live stream, according to a press release.

Award money varies for each level. The initial 300 scholars chosen received $2,000, according to a press release. Finalists were awarded $25,000 and the top 10 winners are awarded various sums with the highest being $250,000.

“These young scientists are living through the greatest epidemiological event in living memory and have been resilient in the face of the changing world and what it means for their immediate future,” said Ajmera in a press release. “They recognize the power science has to spark conversation and influence our world’s most pressing issues and we’re excited to share their new ideas with the public.”