Helena Jiang sat at a red light after a long day of school at Buchholz High School. Her phone suddenly rang, and an unknown Washington D.C. caller ID flashed on the screen. Her stomach swarmed with butterflies. This was it.
It was at that red light that Helena found out she was a finalist in one of the most prestigious science competitions in the nation.
“I had a little dance in my car,” she said. “It was a really exciting moment.”
Jiang was one of the top 40 finalists of the Regeneron Science Talent Search (Regeneron STS), a math and science competition for high school seniors run by the Society for Science & the Public. Thousands of students apply, and only 40 are selected as finalists.
Jiang’s research project, titled Novel Bioinspired Colorimetric Sensors for Detecting Chemicals in Vapor, Liquid and Solid Phases, involves sensors that detect environmental pollutants in the solid, liquid and gas phases. The sensors she created can detect things like industrial water pollutants, air pollution and toxins that leak from solid objects like paint, children’s toys and water bottles.
Jiang began the research her sophomore year of high school after a family trip to China. As a lover of Florida sunsets, she was extremely disappointed by the sunsets in China.
“There is no real sunset in China,” Jiang said. “The sun just sets into a layer of smog.”
That experience opened her eyes to the effects of pollution in the world and inspired her to begin her research.
The competition recognizes and empowers young scientists from across the nation who are developing ideas that can help to solve pressing societal issues. These students spend countless hours on original research projects that resemble graduate-level theses.
The top 40 finalists each receive $25,000, and the top 10 winners have a chance at more. Previous finalists have gone on to receive millions of dollars in scholarships, Nobel Prizes, Fields Medals and other prestigious awards.
Influenced by part of her research that required her to create artificial opals, a type of gemstone, Jiang created a non-profit organization called Opalescence. The organization makes kits that allow people to grow their own opal and educates young people about science in a fun way.
Although she has had great success with her research, she still encountered some roadblocks along the way.
“I came across an obstacle that seemed like the end of my research at the time,” Jiang said. “Either my sensors didn’t work, or they were contaminated.”
She said she knew neither could be true, and after six months of research she came across a phenomenon that was causing her issue. Out of this discovery, she created the first solid-base sensor in the market. There is currently a patent pending, which means she will have the legal, exclusive right to the sensor.
Due to COVID-19, the competition occurred online from July 21 to July 29 for the first time since it began in 1942.
Because of the online format of the competition, Jiang hasn’t gotten to meet any of the other finalists in person. But that hasn’t stopped friendships from forming, she said. The young scientists get on group Zoom calls for meetings, award ceremonies and even to play online games together.
Jiang will be attending Harvard University in the Fall. Some of the other finalists will also be attending Harvard, which Jiang is excited about because she will finally meet them in person.
As a Gainesville resident, Jiang grew up going to the Florida Museum of Natural History and other museums with her parents, and she always loved science and math. She said she didn’t focus on research until some of her friends applied for the Regeneron STS and she made it a goal of hers to do the same.
Before diving into the world of research, Jiang focused on Buchholz High School’s math team, a program she was involved with for her entire high school career. The program connected her to a UF professor who she helped with research surrounding pollutants and helped her gain leadership, competition and public speaking skills.
Will Frazer, a Buchholz High School teacher and the coach of the math team, has known Helena since she started coming to the high school in eighth grade as a part of a special STEM program for advanced math and science.
“I have been coaching the math team at Buchholz for over 20 years,” Frazer said. “I have never had a student who has devoted more hours to our team and community than Helena.”
Frazer said that Jiang is one of the busiest students he has ever taught.
“If I did what she did, I would be constantly stressed,” he said. But Jiang is always laughing, smiling and nothing seems to phase her.
“I do not understand much of what she says,” he said. “But I love to hear the excitement in her voice and on her face when she tells me about her research. She truly believes that what she is doing will improve our society in the future.”
In addition to her love for science and math, Jiang loves photography, playing piano and tennis, hanging out with her friends and baking. Over the COVID-19 quarantine, she has picked up some other hobbies too, like ukulele and embroidery.
Jiang said that she has recently honed in on the fact that her and the other Regeneron STS finalists are some of the youngest scientists working on incredible discoveries.
“Our job is not only to work on those research projects, but also to inspire younger generations and future generations so that they too can go on to discover incredible things,” she said.
The Winners Award Ceremony for the Regeneron STS occurred on Wednesday. Jiang did not place in the top 10, but she said that she was so glad to be able to go through this amazing experience.