New Jersey teen wins top honors for researching new approach to neurological damage in science, math competition

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Indrani Das, 17, of Oradell, New Jersey, wins top prize and $250,000 in Regeneron Science Talent Search, founded and produced by Society for Science & the Public. Also pictured are Aaron Yeiser (right), 18, of Pennsylvania, who won 2nd Place and $175,000, and Arjun Ramani (left), 18, of Indiana, who won 3rd Place and $150,000. Photo Credit: Society for Science & the Public/Chris Ayers

Indrani Das, 17, of Oradell, New Jersey, won the top award in the Regeneron Science Talent Search, considered the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science and math competition. Forty finalists, including Das, were honored March 14 at the annual Regeneron Science Talent Search Awards Gala in Washington, D.C., for their research projects demonstrating exceptional scientific and mathematical ability, taking home more than $1.8 million in awards.

Das, a student at Bergen County Academies, won the $250,000 award for her study of a possible approach to treating the death of neurons due to brain injury or neurodegenerative disease. A contributor to neuron death is astrogliosis, a condition that occurs when cells called astrocytes react to injury by growing, dividing and reducing their uptake of glutamate, which in excess is toxic to neurons.

In a laboratory model, she showed that exosomes isolated from astrocytes transfected with microRNA-124a both improved astrocyte uptake of glutamate and increased neuron survival, the press release said.

Das mentors younger researchers and tutors math in addition to playing the piccolo trumpet in a four-person jazz ensemble.

“It’s bad enough that when you receive a traumatic brain injury, a stroke, a neurodegenerative disease, there’s already damage that is going on to a neuron’s brain cells,” Das said in a statement. “But in addition to that, there are supporting cells, specifically astrocytes, that contribute to that death and damage.”

Donna Leonardi, Das’ mentor and a science teacher at the academy, told The Bergen Patch that Das “demonstrates a sincere passion for the scientific endeavor, and her integrity and work ethic are without compare. What is special is that she puts her heart into all she does, and coupled with her intellect, she will attain great heights.”

Second place honors and $175,000 went to Aaron Yeiser, 18, of Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, for his development of a new mathematical method for solving partial differential equations on complicated geometries. Third place honors and $150,000 went to Arjun Ramani, 18, of West Lafayette, Indiana, for blending the mathematical field of graph theory with computer programming to answer questions about networks.

“Now more than ever, we need our nation’s best and brightest young minds to pursue their interest in science and use their talents to solve our world’s most intractable problems,” said Maya Ajmera, president and CEO of Society for Science & the Public and Publisher of Science News. “I congratulate our finalists, who are all poised to become our future scientific leaders.” Society for Science & the Public has organized and produced the Science Talent Search since it was founded in 1942.

Other Indian-Americans among the top 10 winners include:

Fifth Place: Archana Verma, 17, of Jericho, New York, received a $90,000 award for her study of the molecular orbital energy dynamics of dyes, which may someday result in windows that produce solar energy.

Seventh Place: Prathik Naidu, 18, of Potomac Falls, Virginia, received a $70,000 award for his creation of a new machine learning software to study 3-D interactions of the human genome in cancer.

Ninth Place: Vrinda Madan, 17, of Orlando, Florida, received a $50,000 award for her study of 24 potential compounds for the treatment of malaria, in which she found two potential candidates that appear to target the disease-causing organism in a novel way and may warrant further study.

The remaining 30 finalists each received $25,000.

Of more than 1,700 high school seniors who entered the Regeneron Science Talent Search 2017, roughly 300 were named scholars in January. Of those scholars, 40 students were named finalists and invited to Washington, D.C. to compete for the top 10 awards, meet with national leaders and share their projects with the public at the National Geographic Society. These students join the ranks of other Science Talent Search alumni who have gone on to receive more than 100 of the world’s most esteemed science and math honors, including the Nobel Prize and the National Medal of Science.

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