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Creative outlets and quarantine hobbies that are nourishing 9 of this year’s Regeneron STS finalists

By Aparna Paul

STS finalist Holly Cheng
Photo courtesy of Holly Cheng Photo courtesy of Holly Cheng

It’s been three to four months of isolation and social distancing. Fortunately, being homebound doesn’t necessarily equate to boredom. On the contrary, the hours at home can lend themselves to self-reflection and creativity, as evidenced by this year’s class of Regeneron STS finalists, an extraordinary group of students selected for their promise in science and engineering. They have used the extra time to dream up new ideas, delve into passions and playful pastimes, build new skills and explore uncharted pursuits. While one finalist’s bread and butter might be baking up new recipes in the kitchen, another’s might be DIY arts and crafts, or starting an entrepreneurial initiative. For the super-motivated, it might be all three.

Check out how nine of this year’s finalists are staying busy and inspired at home ahead of their virtual Finals Week competition later this month. Learn more about their original research projects here, and sign up to meet them on July 25!

Lauren Chen, 17
Irmo, South Carolina

When she’s not playing Chopin and Beethoven on the violin or piano, you can find STS finalist, Lauren Chen, at the kitchen table with her family working on a jigsaw puzzle. And she’s not the only one. Since the pandemic began, it seems like everyone has started working on a puzzle of some kind, but in Lauren’s family it’s been a long-held tradition. “Every year over winter break, my family and I do a 1000-piece puzzle. The finished puzzles serve as wall decor for my bedroom!”

Holly Cheng, 18
Mount Kisco, New York

STS finalist and incoming Princeton freshman, Holly Cheng, was focused on her science research until the advent of the pandemic changed her plans. She’s switched gears while being at home, mingling her love of Origami with computer science. Turns out the East Asian tradition of paper folding has an overlap with tech and holds other STEM applications, such as protein folding and heart stent design. Holly explains, “I think COVID-19 has made me aware of the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to solve what I would have thought are pure biology problems. I am working on developing an origami simulation in which the user can fold origami in a web browser.”

Victoria Graf, 18
Arlington, Virginia

Since the pandemic began, there’s been a scurry for basic necessities like hand sanitizer, toilet paper, dry pasta and flour. Like her fellow Americans, Victoria Graf has been baking up a storm in the kitchen: “I have started making different breads from around the world. Some of my favorite breads to make are Naan, bagels, Chinese steamed buns and Brazilian Pão de Queijo.”

If that wasn’t enough to keep her busy, Victoria has also started playing the ukulele during quarantine. “I firmly believe that music is a great way to bring joy to a community, and unlike piano, my primary instrument, the ukulele is portable! I have found that playing the ukulele and singing as a family can brighten a bleak day.”

Brazilian Pão de Queijo
STS finalist, Victoria Graf, has taken up baking all different kinds of breads from all over the world during the quarantine Photo courtesy of Victoria Graf

Nithin Kavi, 18
Acton, Massachusetts

STS finalist, Nithin Kavi, tells the Society that he feels fortunate that his loved ones haven’t been impacted directly by COVID-19, but he is feeling the pressure from all the event cancellations. To keep busy during quarantine, he’s begun working for the Art of Problem Solving, an academy that brings together talented students to focus on their critical thinking skills. As a national competitive chess player for the past 11 years, Nithin finds joy working on problems that require logic and working memory, saying it is a “relaxing and an informative pastime.”

Jason Liu, 17
Reno, Nevada

Puzzles are certainly all the rage these days. Like a few of his fellow STS finalists, Jason Liu has also started “working on a lot of puzzle hunts in the last few months.” It is perhaps the same characteristics that Jason loves about solving math problems and other calculations in his head that converge with his attentiveness to completing jigsaw puzzles. “My family has a lot of jigsaw puzzles on the walls of our home. The puzzles are of maps and coastal villages. Usually when I’m working on puzzles, especially when there’s only a couple pieces left, I find a gap and then I just start fitting in pieces that look like they are about the right shape till it works,” he says.

STS finalist, Nadine Meister has played piano since she was a child./Photo courtesy of Nadine Meister Photo courtesy of Nadine Meister

Nadine Meister, 18
Ellicott City, Maryland

Since she was 5-years-old, Nadine Meister has been playing piano, bringing her talents to Carnegie Hall. During quarantine, she’s been playing solo pieces virtually with friends, like fellow STS finalist, Lauren Chen. “We split difficult solo pieces, such as La Campanella and Hungarian Rhapsody, into duets and trios,” she explains. “Playing piano with friends virtually and combining duets by overlaying different parts with a video editing software” has allowed Nadine to continue with her passion for music. She says her other main quarantine obsession is “excessive” baking of banana bread.

Lillian Petersen, 17
Los Alamos, New Mexico

Being surrounded by mountains, it’s no surprise that STS finalist, Lillian Petersen, spends a lot of time outdoors. She’s an avid trail runner, as well as a skiing enthusiast. Her artistic side is all about strings. She says that, “when I was three-years-old, I decided that I wanted to learn how to play the violin. I begged my parents for weeks until they gave in and found a local violin teacher. I have been playing the violin ever since!” With the extra quarantine time, she’s been learning how to play the guitar.

Ella Wesson, 18
Manhasset, New York

Ella Wesson may not call herself an artist, but she has an iPad stylus, and being stuck at home has brought out her creative side. When looking around for cute stickers to add to her laptop, she says she had the idea to create her own. “I’ve started to draw and doodle digitally and create stickers. I’ve been selling them online.” Her stickers are of different college names and fun slogans. She adds that her “family’s never done that much cooking together,” but being at home she’s grateful for the time they have for family meals and game nights playing favorites like Scattergories and Bananagrams.

Alek Westover, 18
Belmont, Massachusetts

Alek Westover decided the weekend following cancelled classes that he’d start the CoronaCodingClub. “In this club I taught some of my friends how to code in basic Python and other web development stuff.” Though isolation could have been a lonely time, he says that instead he’s built a community through daily coding sessions. He worked with this group on a coding project: “a virtual yearbook for our school!” Applying these skills, “we worked on making a really cool application that the majority of our grade used to send goodbye messages to each other through our application’s virtual “sign yearbook” feature,” he says. “This is one example of how overcoming this difficult time with others has brought me closer to people.”

See how 10 fellow Regeneron STS finalists have responded to the worldwide racial protests and civil unrest here.