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Five questions with Rupert Li, the 4th place winner of the 2020 Regeneron Science Talent Search

By Aparna Paul

Rupert Li came in fourth place during STS 2020 Portrait of Rupert Li by Amy Wike

We’re living in interesting and uncertain times, to put it mildly. But young scientists like Rupert Li, are helping to bring about a sense of optimism and a glimmer of hope. This year, Rupert placed fourth and won a $100,000 award in the Regeneron Science Talent Search for a project aimed at making the world better. With the American West being ravaged by destructive wildfires and other terrible calamities, such as hurricanes, floods and droughts impacting other hot spots in the country, Rupert’s winning project using mathematics to enhance our understanding of natural phenomena serves to encourage.

Since he was a child, Rupert has loved exploring the world around him and says that mentors have played a significant role in his life. After skipping four grade levels of mathematics during his middle school years, he deepened his studies of the subject at Jesuit High School in Portland, Oregon. There, he was grateful to find a mentor who could teach him graduate level mathematics at an astonishingly young age. He encourages the next generation of scientists to never shy away from their curiosities, saying, “There are so many mentoring figures out there, from your teachers to professors and scientists, that are willing to help you. They’ve had years of experience and can provide many valuable insights.” Rupert urges aspiring scientists and engineers to take advantage of resources and opportunities early. As a high school sophomore, Rupert immersed himself in a program at MIT and found more graduate student mentors to nurture his love of mathematics. Today Rupert is a freshman at MIT ─ his hard work has certainly paid off. Let’s hear more from Rupert below.

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

Widespread access to efficient and effective quantum computers. I feel like we’re quite close to having quantum computers replace classical computers, but there are still a number of issues with our current quantum computing technology. Humankind’s first quantum computers are too expensive, take up too much space, are prone to errors and are definitely not as powerful as they could potentially be. I’m hopeful that in my lifetime I’ll be able to open up my personal laptop quantum computer and run programs that were previously computationally infeasible.

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

Évariste Galois. Being able to work with Galois would be such an amazing and definitely productive experience. He made many advancements to group theory, one of the most important fields in math, which so many other mathematical fields rely on, as well as laying the foundation for Galois theory; all before the age of 20, when he died from a duel in 1832. I do not exaggerate at all when I say being able to work with him for even a month could have groundbreaking consequences in mathematics.

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

I would work on inventing fusion power. With fusion power, we could eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels for energy, which would help society obviate our current climate change crisis. Being able to harness the power of fusion would allow us to power the entire world for at least thousands of years, using far less input materials and creating far less harmful byproducts, such as nuclear waste or greenhouse gases, while also being quite safe.

What was the most interesting part of having STS is be a virtual event?

I think the most interesting part was that I got to see how persistent humanity is. During these tumultuous times that have changed all of our lives, many things are still the same. Society adapts to whatever it’s been given, and I got to see from the many renowned scientists I met during finals week that science keeps on going, no matter what gets thrown our way.

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

My most memorable experience from the Regeneron Science Talent Search was meeting all of the people. Getting to know my fellow finalists was such an amazing experience, and I’m sure that many of these friendships will last well into my adult life. In addition, meeting all of the renowned guest speakers and the judges was truly awesome; they are such an inspiring group of scientists.

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