Urbana High School senior Joshua Yu first became interested in science as a fifth grade student in the Frederick County Public Schools Elementary Magnet program.
With Mr. Jeff Esko as his teacher, he recalls going to the wetlands to do pH testing and learning about different fossils and flora and fauna. “He was really engaging,” Yu recalled. “He really taught us a lot about the application side of science. … That experience really put me on the path to science.”
Over the years, Yu noted he has had a number of science teachers who have continued to inspire him. Last year, he decided to enter the Regeneron Science Talent Search, a nationwide research-based science competition for high school seniors. His project focused on synthetic virus-like particles and the future of targeted drug delivery.
In January, Yu was one of 300 students selected as scholars in the contest. “I knew that I had done a good job on the project but to achieve such an award was exciting,” he said.
In its 78th year, the competition received nearly 2,000 entries from across the country, which is a number that has not been seen since 1970, said Allie Stifel, Regeneron Science Talent Search director. Last year, the competition garnered a little over 1,800 entrees.
“For a really long time, we have been identifying top young scientists in the country,” she said. “… We were really lucky this year. We received a record high number of applicants.”
Similar to the college application process, the contest asks students to conduct a research project and write a 20-page report detailing their findings. Judges, who hold doctorates in various scientific fields, also look at a student’s transcripts, test scores, letters of recommendations and essays. Students may choose to submit in 18 different categories like robotics, computer science and bioinformatics. “We are ultimately searching for the most promising scientific leaders in our country,” Stifel said.
The competition has recognized 13 future Nobel Prize winners and multiple MacArthur Fellows. “It is a great marker for life that this is a person who was high achieving at a young age, and it opens a lot of doors for the people who are chosen in this top 300,” Stifel said.
The 300 scholars, including Yu, each receive $2,000 with an additional $2,000 going to their school’s science program.
Near the end of January, the top 40 finalists will be chosen to compete in Washington, D.C. in March for the $250,000 grand prize. Urbana High School Principal David Kehne noted that a decision has not been made yet on how the money will be spent.
“We will let that decision rest in the hands of our science teachers and we will collaborate with them to make sure that it is used in the best way possible to support student achievement here at Urbana,” he said.
Kehne, along with the entire school community, was very excited to hear about Yu’s selection. “He is an incredible science student,” Kehne said. “He has completed a lot of our most rigorous science courses here. All of his science teachers have reported really enjoying having him in their classes.”
As an intern at the National Cancer Institute since June, Yu first heard about the competition from his mentor, Dr. Nadya Tarasova. He chose synthetic virus-like particles because he had been conducting research in this area.
“We tested different drugs derived from different receptors,” he said. “All these different receptors were active in different diseases and that’s why we specifically chose to target them. We found all of them formed these nanoparticles, which is kind of significant and interesting because you’d think that this similar sequence derived from different receptors would yield different results when they fully assembled but they actually all formed nanoparticles which is important because if you think about injecting drugs into humans there are a lot of different environments it has to go through and so this assembly property which is my main aspect of study is important to protect it from that environment.”
His project took him several months over the summer into the new school year to complete. “By the far the best part was just all the learning that I got to do,” Yu said. “My mentor is fantastic. She really taught me a lot even in what may seem like a short span of time. I’m really grateful for that. I pretty much knew almost nothing in depth about this subject in particular, which would be nanomedicines or perhaps drug development.”
The 17-year-old has been applying to colleges with plans to major in chemistry. His experience conducting research has motivated him to possibly become a scientist or a clinician.
After months of work, Yu was excited to see his hard work pay off in his scholar selection. “Even though it was a lot of work, it was definitely really fulfilling because I love the subject and I was motivated to do it,” he said.