Teen scientists solve mysteries, compete for "junior Nobel Prize"

The national Regeneron Science Talent Search is an annual competition known among scientists as a junior Nobel Prize. Some of the winners have gone on to win a real Nobel. This year’s finalists were awarded more than $1.8 million.

Led on by cheers from her fellow competitors, Indrani Das was awarded first place for her research on treating brain injuries. 

Neurons are dying around these supporting cells, and at the same time there is more of this glutamate in the environment,” Das explained at her booth.

Das was one of 40 high school seniors vying for the title, reports CBS News correspondent Errol Barnett. These bright young competitors must explain their projects in a concise way and sell their ideas to the judges.

“All right, Blake, impress me. What did you find?” Barnett asked participant Blake Hord.

“I improved on a computer simulation of planet formation,” Hord said.

“Wow. Didn’t you discover something during you research?” Barnett asked.

“I discovered evidence for a forming planet around a nearby star,” he responded.

Hord trained for this moment by inspiring even younger scientists. While engaging young kids in the wonders of stars and the planets, he’s honing in on how to explain his own discoveries.

“To be able to condense knowledge… into such small anecdotes really has helped me understand my own work better and communicate at the basic level so that I truly do understand what I’m doing,” Hord said.

While Hord is finding new planets, Prathik Naidu is using computer software to try to cure cancer. 

“So you turned this physical manifestation of the way DNA is structured into algorithms to study them?” Barnett asked.

“Exactly, and I think that’s really powerful because rather than trying to use the experimental biochemical methods in the lab, the computation with my laptop is so much faster,” Naidu said.

Isabella Greco wanted to determine if there was really gender bias, so she put together a survey and found this: “People with feminine-associated jobs were more likely to be falsely remembered by a reader as having not achieved as much. And also… people were more likely to have false memories about feminine-associated job,” Greco said.

“So this really exposes something about gender bias?” Barnett asked.

“Yeah, it also exposes something about the wage gap, potentially,” Greco said.
 
For over 70 years the Society for Science & the Public has run the competition with a corporate sponsor, first known as the Westinghouse and more recently backed by Intel.

George Yancopoulos was a winner of the Westinghouse in 1976. Thirteen years later, he went on to be the founding scientist of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, which is now the competition’s sponsor.

“What does it take to inspire a young teenager’s mind to get them to be the next generation of scientists?” Barnett asked him.

“A realization and recognition that it is so important and they can get recognized and they can actually be heroes,” Yancopoulos said.

Now one of those heroes is Das.

“I want brain injury to be tackled at a fundamental level, and I mean brain injury by Alzheimer’s, neuro-degeneration, traumatic brain injury. I want to see all the people who suffer from these conditions to improve their quality of life,” Das said.

“We need kids, the best and the brightest, to become scientists. Why? Because we are literally in a war for survival as a species,” Yancopoulos said. “We’ve got to be inspiring, we’ve got to be capturing their imagination, and we’ve got to convince them and they have to come in here and help save our world.”