After months of research on topics of their choosing, six Andover students qualified for the 2021 USA Regional Semi-Finals of the Shing-Tung Yau High School Science Award competition. Founded by Harvard mathematics professor Shing-Tung Yau, the research competition encourages high schoolers from around the world to explore and conduct research on specific areas of science and mathematics. These areas include mathematics, biology, chemistry, computer science, economics and financial modelling, and physics. Over 5,800 teams of students compete for the award each year.
William Yue ’22 and Nathan Xiong ’22 each conducted research on mathematics. In the field of computer science, Michael Huang ’23 and Claire Wang ’23 worked together while Dongcheng Han ’23 led an independent research project in machine learning. Shawn Guo ’23 qualified in the economics and financial modeling section. On Saturday, October 30, the five semi-finalists presented the results of their research to a panel of judges, followed by a Q&A session.
In his independent project, Guo studied optimizations of airline flight strategies. His research was inspired by Covid-19, which caused travel restrictions and lower flight demands that he had personally experienced. Guo’s personal connection to the topic led to his project’s goal: discovering the best method of minimizing airline costs.
“Last spring, when we all went remote, I couldn’t go back to China because there was just no ticket for me. And then I saw on the news every day how the airline companies lost money, and I just thought that this topic would be really relevant to me, and I wanted to look at what really happened… My topic was how to optimize the arrangement or the assignment of plane models and flight routes, so how to assign planes to different routes in pandemic times,” said Guo.
After participating in the competition during the previous year, Xiong entered this year independently. He was initially intimidated by the amount of information he had to address in his project in mathematical physics, but he had fun with the challenge.
“It seems very scary at first. I know that I was pretty scared at the start because there’s just so much out there that you have to read and understand… it’s a lot of reading articles, textbooks, looking through background material, trying different ideas, seeing what doesn’t work most of the time,” said Xiong.
Xiong continued, “This year, I’m individual, which is a lot harder and a lot more work. Like when you’re in a group, I’d say it’s more fun because you can work with your peers and stuff. Individually, you have to rely on yourself as well as your mentor.”
A unique aspect of the S.-T. Yau Science Award is the present element of teamwork. Unlike some other research competitions, students have the option to register either as groups or individuals. Yue, who competed in a group with Sebastian Zhu ’20 and Vincent Fan ’20 two years ago with a theoretical computer science project, found benefits in having many ideas and diverse perspectives within a group. This year, Yue worked on another group project in low-dimensional topology and noted that working as a team made the research an easier and faster process.
“I do like the group dynamic of being able to bounce ideas off of other people and then just having other people there to motivate you on your work. And sometimes I don’t see the crucial finish or some other idea that cracks open the problem and one of my group mates will see it,” said Yue.
On the other hand, Huang recognizes that working in groups presents a set of challenges. According to Huang, teammates may disagree on how to work on the problem at hand or have different ideas about what the final research paper should look like. Working through those differences and coming to an agreement is an important skill that Huang learned.
“We are co-authoring this paper, and obviously there will be disagreements. Our interests are quite different, so we sometimes separate work into separate parts. And stitching them together sometimes can be difficult,” said Huang.
Xiong spent months studying complex areas of mathematics to understand how researched information might be used to reach a conclusion about his research topic. Often, his hard work led to dead ends. Despite this, he considered the many roadblocks he faced in the research process to be impactful components of the learning experience.
“I think the hardest part of research is just persisting, because there’s a lot of times where… you try a lot of different techniques that just don’t work, but you always have to remember that there’s that one tiny chance that the next thing you try magically works. I think it’s having that mindset, so you’re anticipating that you’re going to fail… because I know that there’s a tiny chance that it will succeed,” said Xiong.
The S.-T. Yau Science Award provides an opportunity for students to learn about and develop skills in scientific and mathematical research. Beyond this, however, the award program provides students with the chance to meet other high schoolers around the world who are similarly interested in STEM research.
“Research has been fun. I’ll probably do some more as an undergrad in college… It’s fun meeting [people] in person… [and] seeing all the other motivated high schoolers doing cool research projects and learning what they’re about,” said Yue.