“Research just isn’t for me,” then-sophomore Irene Gao ’24 dubiously told her advisor and science department chair Jen Craft two years ago. She was flagging in the final stages of a labor-intensive, often tedious project examining the efficacy of four machine-learning models in identifying lung cancer subtypes from tissue images.

Then, in January 2024, Gao’s perseverance paid off when she was named a Top 300 Scholar in the 83rd Regeneron Science Talent Search (STS), a prestigious science and mathematics competition for high school seniors. STS “recognizes and empowers the most promising young scientists in the U.S. who are creating the ideas and solutions that solve our most urgent challenges.” From more than 2,162 applicants nationwide, Gao earned a $2,000 scholarship, as well as another $2,000 for Nobles to support its STEM initiatives. 

In her junior year, Gao applied machine learning to research the invasive lanternfly across the eastern United States. Months later, for her STS prizewinning project, she used machine-generated models to predict the nationwide spread of a different invasive, the Tree of Heaven—a favored host plant of the destructive lanternfly. The spark for Gao’s project, “Deep Learning-Based Satellite Image Analysis for Predicting the Correlated Density of the Tree of Heaven,” was a research paper that used satellite images and machine learning to plot the distribution of cancer prevalence in the United States. For two months, she painstakingly honed her purpose and method. Then she spent an additional two months carrying it out—from writing code to contacting institutions around the world for data, spending hours every night doing research after her regular schoolwork and waking up at 2 a.m. to check the progress of her code. 

“I wanted to prove to myself that I’m able to stick something out,” Gao says. “I had an inkling that if I gave it up, I’d have some regrets. I was really passionate about the project and wanted the work to come through—it was my brainchild. It was an amazing feeling overall.” 

Her resulting research will be published in PLOS One, the peer-reviewed, open-access mega journal published by the Public Library of Science. Throughout the process, Gao credits Craft, whom she calls “more of a life coach than just a science research mentor.”

view all news