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New Mexico Girl Wins $250,000 Top Prize in Teen Science Fair For Inventing Tool That Could Prevent Starvation in Africa

The nation’s oldest and most prestigious STEM competition for high school seniors just awarded more than $1.8 million to ten finalists who exhibited exceptional problem-solving abilities and scientific leadership.

For the first time in its 78-year history, the Regeneron Science Talent Search competition (formerly the Westinghouse Science Talent Search) took place virtually, but that didn’t quell the excitement as the top winners were announced—and Lillian Kay Petersen of Los Alamos, New Mexico won a quarter million dollars.

The 17-year-old invented a simple tool for predicting harvests early in the growing season, which helps to improve food distribution planning and offers a promising resource to aid groups working on global food insecurity.

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Lillian first validated her tool, which analyzes daily satellite imagery using accepted measures of vegetation health, on known domestic crop data. She then tested it for countries in Africa and successfully predicted harvests with terrific accuracy when compared with reported yields.

She was motivated to do research in this field after her parents adopted children who faced food insecurity and, later, she read about Ethiopia where a famine had affected millions of people leading to developmental learning problems in children.

The moment the winner was announced – Regeneron Science Talent Search

Second place and $175,000 went to Jagdeep Bhatia, 18, of Green Brook, New Jersey for developing two fast and simple machine learning algorithms for computer programs that are attempting to learn new concepts under the tutelage of an instructor, either a computer or human. His algorithms do not only ask random questions but, like a savvy detective, ask just the right ones. His AI algorithms could help train robots and other automated devices faster and easier.

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Third place and $150,000 went to Brendan Crotty, 18, of Muskogee, Oklahoma for his project where he designed and built an efficient hybrid gas burner that could help reduce the ecological impact of industries like power generation and materials manufacturing. His specialized burner system operates at higher temperatures than current industrial burners yet emits 19 percent less polluting nitrogen dioxide gas. To build his model, Brendan had to become proficient in computer design software, metal casting and machining.

“Congratulations to the Regeneron Science Talent Search 2020 winners,” said Maya Ajmera, President of the Society for Science & the Public, which runs the contest, and 1985 Science Talent Search alumna.

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“Students like Lillian Petersen are the stewards of our future. The current pandemic has made it clear how important science is to our wellbeing. With these finalists at the forefront of scientific and engineering discovery, I know we are in good hands. They will be solving the world’s most intractable problems.”

WATCH the video below, and LEARN about all the teen finalists on their website.

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