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Five questions with Arjun Neervanan, the 10th place winner of the 2020 Regeneron Science Talent Search

By Aparna Paul

STS 2020 finalist, Arjun Neervanan
Illustration of STS 2020 tenth place winner, Arjun Neervanan Illustration by Amy Wike

Irvine, California native, Arjun Neervanan, won a whopping $40,000 as the tenth-place winner in the 2020 Virtual Regeneron Science Talent Search ─ all before heading to the east coast for college at the University of Pennsylvania. Both, his winning research and company, detoxifAI, focus on mitigating a serious issue that’s on the rise, especially in a world gone virtual: cyberbullying. His project titled Combating Cyberbullying and Toxicity by Teaching AI to Use Linguistic Insights from Human Interactions in Social Media, identifies ways to fine-tune algorithms working to classify toxic language. As it stands, toxic language in social media discussions are often over-censored and taken out of a human context. When an AI algorithm incorrectly identifies toxic language, the behavior of that algorithm will simply perpetuate if not disrupted; it’s critical to teach the model the complexities of linguistics for it to be useful. Good news is that Arjun’s model has shown to reduce errors in identifying toxic language by 44%.

Arjun tells the Society that in his life he would like to be best known “for solving problems in unorthodox and unique ways. More than any one particular achievement, I would like to be known for challenging the norm at every step in my life–it is more about a way of thinking and approaching these issues, whether it’s a global crisis like climate change or even a social problem such as cyberbullying.” Well, it’s clear that Arjun is a promising leader and has thus far achieved his goal to innovate and push society forward with science. This is certainly not the last we’ll hear from him, someone who is deeply passionate about making an impact in the world with STEM.

Which sci-fi advancement are you upset we don’t have by now?

One sci-fi advancement I would like to see is a jetpack that is commercially available and easy to use. Although transporting via jetpack may not be the most environmentally efficient mode of transportation, it would be really fun to use one. I’ve always been amazed by the magic of airplanes and flight, so this is something that I wish was more readily available.

Which scientist – alive or deceased – would you want to solve scientific mysteries with and why?

I would love to solve scientific mysteries with Aristotle. While his work in science may not be the most flashy or the most exciting, I believe his work is foundational to our understanding of science as we know it today, such as his study in formal logic. Going to the utmost basics of science principles would be an interesting way to approach modern scientific problems, and working with Aristotle would enable that. Furthermore, it would also be interesting to get a viewpoint of someone so far back in history on science.

What would you invent if you had all the resources in the world?

If I had all of the resources in the world, I would invent a way for humans to live on extraterrestrial planets that enables them to simulate Earth-like conditions at scale so that, in the event that Earth becomes inhospitable, humans would be able to find a way to continue life. It would be interesting to colonize other planets that are hospitable for life, bring life to those planets, and see how organisms from Earth evolve over time to adapt to the new surroundings.

What was the most interesting/weird/surprising part of having STS be a virtual event?

The weirdest part, but also the most interesting and exciting part of having STS be a virtual event were the virtual game nights and dance breaks. Even if it was initially a little bit awkward, I had a lot of fun dancing (virtually) with my peers during the dance breaks and the dance party after the awards ceremony. The virtual game nights were also quite interesting.

What was your most favorite or memorable experience from virtual STS? And why?

One of my most memorable experiences was the judging. Even though I probably didn’t feel this way during the interview, I thought the questions asked were some of the most interesting and thought-provoking questions I have ever been asked in a science fair.

Another one of my most favorite memories from virtual STS was listening to Ms. Ajmera’s and Dr. Schleifer’s speeches at the virtual awards ceremony. It was very inspiring to hear the path that me and my fellow STS finalists would be headed, but was also humbling to hear about the failures each had faced in their respective careers and how they overcame them.

Share your research for a chance to win incredible prizes and meet like-minded young leaders in science, just like Arjun, by applying to the Regeneron Science Talent Search 2021! Application now open for the Class of 2021 through November 12, 2020.