Fairfield County high school senior Raina Jain with her research project at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Photo Credit: Andrew Bramante
Fairfield County high school senior Cynthia Chen with her research project at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Photo Credit: Andrew Bramante
Fairfield County high school senior Hiba Hussain with her research project at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Photo Credit: Andrew Bramante
Fairfield County high school senior Justin Speaker with his research project at the Connecticut Science and Engineering Fair. Photo Credit: Andrew Bramante

Energy, COPD, Pollinators, Contact Lenses Among Award-Winning Student Research In Greenwich

Lung disease, pest control and energy conservation are challenging concepts for leading scientists, but four teens from Fairfield County took them on, earning high marks.

The local scholars are seniors at Greenwich High School and among 300 of the country's top participants in the Regeneron Science Talent Search, 2020 announced Jan. 9.

They are Cynthia Chen for her project titled A Green Nanotechnological Approach for Energy Efficiency and Conservation: Tungsten-doped Vanadium Dioxide Thermochromic Smart Windows; Hiba Hussain for Non-invasive, Low-Cost Diagnosis of COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) via Smartphone Breath Analysis; Raina Jain for Control of Varroa Destructor Infestation with a Dual-Function Thymol Emitting Honey Bee Hive Entranceway; and Justin Speaker for Project Title: Design of a Riboflavin-Enhanced Ultraviolet Contact Lens Disinfection System.

Each student will be awarded $2,000 and is automatically in the running for a spot in the Top 40 Finalists, where if selected will receive at least $25,000 and an invitation to Washington, D.C., for the final competition in March where the top award is $250,000.

On Jan. 22, 40 of the 300 scholars will be named Regeneron Science Talent Search finalists. Finalists receive an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C., from March 5-11, when they will compete for more than $1.8 million in awards provided by Regeneron, according to the company.

The science scholars told Daily Voice Plus why their projects are meaningful and about future plans.

Raina Jain's device eliminates varroa mite infestations from honey bee hives. She explained that "Currently, bees help pollinate over 90 percent of the world's nutrition, but their population is threatened by a parasitic mite which is found in more than two-thirds of all beehives in the nation. The most widely used treatment is only 60 percent effective and has lethal side effects, so I saw this as an opportunity and dedicated my junior and senior year of high school to develop a solution to this epidemic."

Jain, 17, plans on distributing the device to beekeepers on a larger scale and pursue environmental engineering in college.

Justin Speaker, 18, said, "There are currently 120 million contact lens wearers worldwide who are susceptible to sight-threatening infections caused by microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and amoeba, which is why daily disinfection of contact lenses is so important."

The most commonly used disinfection methods rely on chemicals that cause irritation, dry eye, and redness, with a decrease in the number of hours that contact lenses can be "comfortably tolerated," Speaker explained.

He said up to one million U.S. health care visits for contact lens complications occur annually, costing $175 million.

Speaker learned about the hazards of current contact lens disinfection methods after mistakenly inserting a lens in his eye without neutralizing the peroxide disinfectant solution, resulting in "searing pain. The trauma of this chemical burn motivated me to learn more about the current contact lens disinfection technology."

His research lasted several months and revealed that current methods "are not uniformly effective at disinfection, while also being toxic to the delicate surface of the eye" which results in many cases of eye injury, he said.

Speaker's method is based on the fact that the antimicrobial effect of UV radiation is enhanced by compounds such as riboflavin, or vitamin B2, a naturally occurring compound, and an essential human nutrient, that absorbs UV light and converts it into free radicals, he explained.

"The free radicals are highly damaging to infectious organisms such as bacteria and fungi that contaminate contact lenses. In this research, I created a system by utilizing riboflavin and oxygen to reduce the dose of UV required to kill microorganisms. This novel system is more effective at disinfecting contact lenses than conventional systems while reducing toxicity to the eye, Speaker said.

He plans on studying engineering at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering.

Hiba Hussain, 17, created a non-invasive and inexpensive diagnostic test for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) which is currently the fourth leading cause of death worldwide. 

Hussain said current methods of diagnosis use sophisticated medical equipment and are an inconvenience for doctors and patients.

Her test analyzes breath components with a near-field-communication (NFC) chip (current technology used in Apple Pay) and a smartphone application to provide an accurate diagnosis for the disease in four minutes and around $2, she said.

College plans involve a biomedical engineering major, then a medical degree and "lead a biotech startup focused on diagnosing and treating chronic illnesses."

Cynthia Chen, 17 said the "novel, intelligent windows I developed can favorably regulate their optical performance at close to room temperature by passing or blocking infrared radiation, in order to keep rooms cool in the summer and warm in the winter."

The windows can spare "significant amounts of energy for heating or cooling and maintain the comfort of buildings for humans, advancing the commercialization of thermochromic smart windows for home-energy applications," Chen added.

She plans on conducting more research to find a way to mass-produce the windows in any size and make sure they are weatherproof over a certain lifespan. 

Chen wants to incorporate her STEM interests to engage in a science-based business entity, moving into management levels in the future. 

The Regeneron Science Talent Search scholars were announced Jan. 9. The students were selected from 1,993 applications received from 659 high schools across 49 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, and eight countries.

Selections are based on "exceptional research skills, commitment to academics, innovative thinking and promise as scientists" according to the competition program.

The Greenwich students did all their research at Greenwich High School.

“Each of these students’ work represents an incredible innovation in their area of interest, whether it be energy conservation, environmental management, or medicine, at the level that is at or equal to university-level work," said Greenwich High School Science Teacher and Research Advisor Andrew Bramante. 

He lauded the projects, adding, their work has the "ability to change the landscape of our energy dependence, medical care, and will save our food resources through the protection of our much-needed pollinators."

The full list of 2020 Regeneron STS Scholars can be viewed here.