Lillian Petersen Of Los Alamos Wins First Place In Regeneron Science Talent Search 2020

Lillian Petersen during the filming of her competition video. Courtesy/Regeneron Science Talent Search 2020

Los Alamos Daily Post

Lillian Kay Petersen, a 2020 graduate of Los Alamos High School, has won First Place in the 2020 Regeneron Science Talent Search 2020, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors.

Petersen, 17, will receive the top prize of $250,000. More than $1.8 million was awarded to the finalists, who were evaluated based on the scientific rigor of their projects, their exceptional problem-solving abilities and their potential to become scientific leaders. The contest is judged by 16 top scientists.

For the first time in its 78-year history, the competition took place virtually to keep finalists safe during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Forty finalists, including Petersen, were honored July 29 during a live virtual award ceremony.

“Lillian stood out in her broad knowledge of science,” said Maya Ajmera, President and CEO of Society for Science & the Public, Publisher of Science News and 1985 Science Talent Search alumna. “She’s scoring the fruits of her tenacity. We’re really proud of her.”

Makayla Gates, a graduate of Valencia High School in Los Lunas also was a finalist. Her project was titled “Comparative Analysis of Lovastatin Introduction Through Botanical Dietary Supplementation in Apis mellifera for Treatment of Social Anxieties in Fragile-X Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorder Patients”.

“Every state needs to create students like Lillian and Makayla,” Ajmera said. “New Mexico is producing some great kids!”

Petersen’s project, “Real-Time Prediction of Crop Yields from MODIS Relative Vegetation Health: A Continent-Wide Analysis of Africa” is a tool that uses satellite imagery to predict harvests early in the growing season. This model could help improve food distribution planning and offers a resource to those working to address global food insecurity. Petersen first validated her tool, which analyzes daily satellite imagery using accepted measures of vegetation health, on known domestic crop data. She then applied it to every country in Africa and successfully predicted harvests with high accuracy against reported yields.

“The power of this system is its simplicity and versatility,” Petersen said. “This model can predict crop yields anywhere in the world, on any crop type, and it is practically free.”

Petersen was a mentee at Descartes Labs in 2017 and 2018, and retrieved satellite imagery from the Descartes Labs Satellite Platform. Established in 2014 by a team of scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory, Descartes Labs was founded to create a geospatial data refinery to fuel predictive models. For her study, she processed 15 terabytes of data.

“I would like to thank my excellent mentors Daniela Moody and Rick Chartrand, who were always there to answer my questions on satellite imagery and how to process such large datasets,” Petersen said. “They helped me achieve so much, and I would not be here today without them.”

Petersen was inspired to do her project after reading about a major drought in Ethiopia in 2015 and 2016.

“Government and aid organizations were unprepared,” Petersen said. “Monitoring crop health as droughts develop could give governments and aid organizations more lead time to respond to food crises.”

Petersen has been competing in science fair competitions since seventh grade, including the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium (JSHS), and the New Mexico Supercomputing Challenge.

“I would advise any young student interested in science to learn computer programming,” she said. “It opens the doors to anyone so that they can participate in real science at a young age.”

Petersen will attend Harvard University this fall and plans to study applied math and molecular biology. Only freshmen will be present on campus this fall and classes will be virtual due to COVID-19.

“I was attracted to Harvard’s diversity of majors,” Petersen said. “I’ll have the opportunity to meet future presidents, world-class musicians, biologists and mathematicians who will shape the future.”

Being in Cambridge will also allow Petersen to meet up with many other Regeneron Science Talent Search finalists in person. Out of 40 finalists, 10 are going to Harvard and seven are going to MIT, also in Cambridge.

“The Society for Science & the Public did a very good job of connecting the finalists virtually,” Petersen said. “I am hopeful that many of us will be lifelong friends. I watched the project videos from all 40 finalists and am so impressed by their depth and quality! I feel so honored to know people who do such amazing things!”