Eastlake High School senior Christine Ye never wanted to be famous. But fame caught up to her after she was awarded a huge prize for her first place finish at a national science competition.
On March 15, Ye took home the title and a $250,000 prize from the Regeneron Science Talent Search (STS) for her research in astrophysics.
“I guess [fame] is an occupational hazard of winning,” Ye, 17, said.
STS is the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science competition for high school seniors. Each year, over 1,800 applicants are evaluated based on their scientific knowledge, research, and public communication. 40 finalists are invited to a weeklong ceremony in Washington D.C., where they see the sights, hear from esteemed guest speakers, and participate in three days of judging. On March 15, after an awards ceremony hosted by Saturday Night Live’s Melissa Villasenor, $1.8 million in prize money was distributed amongst the top 10 competitors.
Ye’s project crafted statistical models based on data sets from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory’s (LIGO) gravitational wave detectors. Ye’s work begins to address questions about the speed, mass, and size of neutron stars in the “very, very, young field” of gravitational wave astronomy, which studies the ripples in space created by the movements of massive objects like black holes.
Next week, Ye will fly to New York City to present her research at the American Physical Society conference, where she met her mentor, Maya Fishbach, two years ago.
Ye said that the STS prize is really the culmination of “a full high school career journey.” Her interest in science began on Evergreen Middle School’s Science Olympiad team, where she learned about earth science and eventually astronomy. In 9th grade, she joined the newly formed Gravitational Wave Astronomy Research Group led by Joey Key, an assistant professor at the University of Washington’s Bothell campus.
Over the following months, Ye quickly moved up the ranks of responsibility and knowledge. She competed at regional science fairs and mentored others within the Pulsar Search Collaboratory, a group that recruits students and teachers to analyze radio telescope data. She has also worked with leading astrophysics researchers in groups like LIGO.
“I would not be anywhere near where I am if I didn’t, you know, take those leaps of faith and email people that I thought would never talk to me,” said Ye about the importance of mentorship.
Outside of research, Ye is on the state Science Olympiad board, runs Eastlake’s Astronomy and Research clubs, and participates in STEM outreach with Girls Rock in Science and Math. In her free time, Ye dances ballet and plays both piano and violin.
“Science is not just, like, the cold hard data and facts. It also involves quite a heavy dose of creativity and so having those outlets is really helpful for me,” said Ye. “You’d be surprised that even the education you get in totally unrelated fields like, I don’t know, world history and English, comes back and helps you when you’re doing this kind of work.”
The award money is reserved for educational purposes, and Ye said that she plans to make good use of it in the fall. She is leaning towards attending Stanford University.
While wrapping up this project, Ye had already started pursuing new directions for her research in star evolution and collision prediction with Fishbach, who is a postdoctoral student at Northwestern University. Ye said that she hopes to continue exploring other fields of science as she works towards her PhD.
“But, right now, astrophysics kind of has my heart,” said Ye.