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Regeneron STS Retreat 2021: A special visit from 1974 Alum, Eric Lander

By Aparna Paul

STS alum, Dr. Eric Lander
STS 2020 and 2021 finalists had a very special visit with Westinghouse Science Talent Search alum, Dr. Eric Lander Photo courtesy of Society for Science/Chris Ayers Photography

After two consecutive years of participation in virtual competitions, this past summer, finalists in the Regeneron Science Talent Search 2020 and 2021 classes were finally able to meet in person at a special retreat at the Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, Virginia. The retreat brought 68 finalists from both classes together in an idyllic setting, allowing each cohort to bond through a variety of fun-filled activities. From hearing words of wisdom from entrepreneur and philanthropist, Sheila Johnson, founder and owner of the Salamander Resort; to teambuilding designed to foster community, including ziplining, falconry and roasting marshmallows over firepits; and taking tours of nearby Washington, D.C., the students celebrated their role as the next generation of scientists and engineers who hold the utmost promise to solve the world’s dire challenges through STEM.

Ahead of and through the duration of the in-person event, students and Society staff followed strict protocols to ensure the safety of every individual in attendance, including required proof of vaccinations, PCR testing before and during the retreat, masking and other social distancing measures.

One of the highlights of the retreat was a special visit to Washington D.C. wherein both classes were greeted with a surprise visitor: mathematician and geneticist Dr. Eric Lander, who competed in the Science Talent Search in 1974, then sponsored by Westinghouse. Lander placed first with a project titled, “Quasiperfect Numbers.”

Fast forward 47 years. Lander, most recently president and founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, now serves on President Joe Biden’s Cabinet as the 11th Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and Science Advisor to the President, a post he says he never imagined he would hold.

“I still remember the Science Talent Search experience, and you will remember your experience,” he told the group after safely demasking outdoors in front of Albert Einstein Memorial. “The thing I remember most is that the summer before I wrote my Westinghouse paper; I was at a National Science Foundation summer program in mathematics. There, I was inspired to learn more about numbers.” That experience left him hooked on STEM. “What’s really interesting is not solving problems in the back of the book, but solving problems that are not in the book. What’s even better is solving that which you’ve stated yourself!”

Eric Lander visit during STS retreat 2021
Photo courtesy of Society for Science/Chris Ayers Photography

To Lander and other STS alumni, the competition can feel a lot like a homecoming, where students have the opportunity to meet other kids their own age who also care deeply about science, technology, math and engineering and how those fields can help ameliorate the challenges facing humanity. “What was really cool was coming to Washington D.C. and meeting peers who felt the same way about the world,” he said.

Lander was inspired by the research topics students explored in 2020 and 2021 and conveyed that these young scientists and engineers were even more ambitious than his own class. “I am in awe of what you are doing,” he said. He noted that though there were a few projects in his STS class that addressed real-world problems, the 2020 and 2021 finalists explored more real-life issues, such as drug violence, hurricane intensity, drug screening, hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa and reducing carbon emissions. “It’s amazing that there is a much greater representation of tackling the problems of here and now. I think that’s an incredible tribute to you and your generation.”

He also shared his opinion that ostensibly obscure topics or fundamental science research is also valuable. Basic research finds its way into scientific literature down the road, but the pure fascination with a given STEM topic is commendable and valuable in and of itself. “Now, we don’t even make the division between what’s pure and what’s applied. It’s science to improve the world at different time scales and different ways.”

Lander also articulated his optimism, seeing the gender balance in the finalist pools of the 2020 and 2021 classes. “Back in 1974, there were a lot more boys than girls in the finalist group; it’s completely gender-balanced now. Science, which historically has not been so inclusive with regard to gender, race, even geography — some parts of the country have tons more science than others — if we don’t manage to include everybody in this country on an equal basis, I don’t see how we succeed.”

Like Lander, who didn’t foresee that he would be working with the American President all these years down the road, STS alumni, including these two classes of finalists, may not know where they will make a difference in the future. But one thing is for sure — we are relying on them and they have a responsibility to solve significant challenges in our world.

The Regeneron STS 2022 application is currently open. Head here to apply, or sign up here to be notified when the application opens in a future year.

Scroll down to see some more fun images from the STS Retreat below:

STS retreat 2021
Photo courtesy of Society for Science/Chris Ayers Photography
STS retreat 2021
Photo courtesy of Society for Science/Chris Ayers Photography
STS retreat 2021
Photo courtesy of Society for Science/Chris Ayers Photography
STS retreat 2021
Photo courtesy of Society for Science/Chris Ayers Photography
STS retreat 2021
Photo courtesy of Society for Science/Chris Ayers Photography
STS retreat 2021
Photo courtesy of Society for Science/Chris Ayers Photography
STS retreat 2021
Photo courtesy of Society for Science/Chris Ayers Photography