Teen Wins $250,000 After Inventing Tool to Prevent Starvation in Africa

A 17-year-old New Mexican girl, Lillian Kay Petersen, won first place and $250,000 after joining the Regeneron Science Talent Search competition. She made a simple tool to predict harvests early in the growing season. Apart from helping to improve the planning of food distribution, it also offers a bright resource to help people working on global food insecurity, to prevent starvation.

Before joining the contest, Petersen first tried her tool on known domestic crop data. Using planting health-approved measures, she first used it to study daily satellite imagery. Then, she tested her tool for countries in Africa. Compared with reported yields, Petersen got accurate forecast results.

She got motivated to research in this field because her parents adopted children who suffered from food shortages. Later, she read about Ethiopia. Then, the teen found that a famine had affected millions of people. Sadly, it led to poor developmental learning in children.

Teen Wins $250,000 After Inventing Tool to Prevent Starvation in Africa
(Photo: Instagram/bainbridgeislandgirlup)

This is the first time in 78 years where the Regeneron Science Talent Search competition was held virtually. Known as the Westinghouse Science Talent Search before, it is the nation's oldest and most honored STEM contest for senior high schoolers. It gave more than $1.8 million awards to the top ten who showed exceptional problem-solving skills and leadership in science.

Machine learning algorithm

Eighteen-year-old Jagdeep Bhatia, of Green Brook, New Jersey, won the second place and $175,000. He made two fast and simple machine learning algorithms. His goal is to help those who are trying to learn new concepts under the tutelage of an instructor.

The algorithms he made do not only ask random questions. It made sure to ask the right ones, just like a savvy detective. His work could help train robots and other gadgets faster and easier.

Hybrid gas burner

Brendan Crotty, an 18-year-old from Muskogee, Oklahoma, won third place and $150,000 for his project. He designed an efficient hybrid gas burner that helps reduce the impact of industries on our nature. He targets those that produce power and manufacture materials.

The burner system he invented works at higher temperatures than normal industrial burners. Apart from that, it emits 19 percent less nitrogen dioxide gas, a gas that pollutes the air we breathe. Crotty had to become good at machines, metal casting, and computer design before he was able to build his model.


President of the Society for Science & the Public, Maya Ajmera, said her congratulations to the winners. She said that students like Petersen are the stewards of our future. She noted that the pandemic has shown us how essential science is to our health.

Ajmera believes that we are in good hands because the top ten winners are at the forefront of scientific and engineering discovery. She also believes that these children will be solving the world's hardest problems.

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