Regeneron is committed to fostering the next generation of scientific innovators who can solve society’s greatest challenges. One way we do this is through the Regeneron Science Talent Search (STS), the nation's oldest and most prestigious science competition for high school seniors. Recently, two of 2020’s top competitors – 1st place winner Lillian Kay Peterson of New Mexico and 5th place winner Anaiah Thomas of New Jersey – sat down with Regeneron research scientist Erin Oswald to discuss their projects, the role of mentors in helping them achieve early success, and what’s next for them.
Comparing research notes
Erin: Lillian and Anaiah, it’s great to meet you. I’ve been impressed with your success in the Regeneron STS competition! A bit of background about me, I’m a bench scientist at Regeneron, and my research focuses on cancer. Our lab is studying how to turn on the T cell response to stop cancer from wreaking havoc in the body. I’d love to learn about your research – can you tell me a bit about your projects?
Anaiah: Erin, as it turns out, our projects are similar. I wanted to study T cells like you but wasn’t able to get access to the right type of facility. Instead, I’m studying natural killer cells, and how they impact cancer and autoimmune disease. Killer cells are interesting because their natural function is to destroy, but they also have a less well-known role, in which they “turn down” the immune system to help fight disease. I like to see this balance of the immune system – both things happening in one cell.
Lillian: My project is very different, but also focused on finding ways to improve human health. I created a model to predict crop yields in Africa three to four months before the harvest, using satellite imagery. In Africa, there is poor monitoring of crop harvests, which can delay responses to drought and food shortages and in turn, lead to hunger and malnutrition. I’ve applied my model to every country in Africa to help predict crop yields in real-time. My hope is it will help communities address these issues.
Proactively finding mentors
Erin: Given all that you’ve both accomplished so early in your careers, has anyone helped you get where you are today? In my own career, I had input from many mentors along the way.
Lillian: I have two excellent mentors. Last year, after I did a presentation at the county science fair, a scientist reached out and expressed interest in helping to foster my interest in computer science and big data. She also brought me in as an intern at her data start up where she introduced me to another mentor. I met with both of them regularly while pursuing my research. They answered questions and gave me tips on how to publish my work.
Anaiah: I was lucky to have a mentor in my high school teacher, who ran the school’s wet lab. She always told us that in science, you don’t have to be the most brilliant – you just need to want to do it. She also encouraged me to start by reading about science. I started reading science magazines, and before long, I was reading scientific papers. From there, I started my first independent research project.
Erin: Sometimes we are lucky to stumble upon mentors, like you two did. The one piece of advice I’d offer as you move forward is to also seek out mentors proactively…think about the job that you want in the future and find the person doing it. Get to know them, ask them what they did to prepare and what they wish they had done. When I was in college, I enjoyed my first immunology class, so I began asking my professor questions. Over time, we got to know each other. She ultimately made an introduction that got me my first job in an immunology lab.
Thinking ahead and going with your gut
Erin: What’s next? Are you headed to college or planning on grad school? I know a lot of scientists plan for grad school early on in their careers.
Lillian: I just kicked off my freshman year at Harvard, and I’m planning to study math and molecular biology. Right now, I’m trying to not think more than one month ahead because everything is changing so fast. I think I want to go to grad school, but I’m unsure if I want to do research or go into the private sector.
Anaiah: I just started at Harvard, too, so I’ll see you there! I’m planning to study the history of the sciences. I’m unsure about grad school. Right now, I’m excited to see where my degree leads.
Erin: I think it’s smart to keep an open mind. I went to grad school but only because I thought I had to in order to become a scientist. But about three years into my program, I realized it was not for me. I wanted to do bench immunology science, and I realized I didn’t need a PhD to do it. So, I left the program.
I think it’s right for some people, but not for everyone. Don’t be afraid to change direction.
Anaiah: Before I got into science, I was interested in climate justice, but found the work difficult given how much it is tied to politics. So, I switched. But now at Harvard, I get to study both – the intersection of science and the humanities. I feel like I ended up in the right place.
Erin: I can relate. Leaving my PhD was a very difficult decision, but I ended up at Regeneron and ultimately it is a much better fit for me. My advice is to go with your gut and what’s right for you, which it sounds like you both have done. But you’re not done yet! There will be lots of people around telling you what to do, but only you know what’s right. Remember that careers do not always follow a straight line and there is no one right way to create one. Even more importantly, remember science is fun and so is this time of your lives (even if it doesn’t seem like it in quarantine!) so have fun with college and getting your careers going – I hope you see each other on campus when the pandemic is behind us.
We are proud to encourage and equip young people to pursue their scientific passions. Learn about the ways we support STEM programs for students of all backgrounds, part of our 2025 responsibility goal to provide STEM experiences to 2.5 million students.