Island high-schoolers take European science prize

World beaters: Young Long Island scientists Poojan Pandya (left) and Leo Takemaru bask in the Bulgarian spotlight.

Two Long Island high schoolers have earned a top European prize for young scientists.

Half Hollow Hills High School West’s Poojan Pandya and Ward Melville Senior High School’s Leo Takemaru earned a first-place finish in the 31st European Union Contest for Young Scientists with their joint research effort, which focused on proteins that could potentially be used as a component of anti-HIV therapies.

The Long Island partners – the only American students in the international science competition – will share the €7,000 prize (about $7,750), handed out Tuesday during EUCYS ceremonies in Bulgaria.

The winners were selected from among 154 young scientists ages 14 to 20, who represented schools in 40 mostly-European countries and submitted 100 total projects for the final round of the annual science contest.

Poojan and Leo’s research – performed under the guidance of research mentor Feng-Qian Li, an associate professor of research in the Stony Brook University Department of Pharmacological Sciences – explored the role of a specific protein in “HIV budding” and how that protein might be a viable target for potential antiviral therapeutics.

The work is a possible key to new treatments for the 37 million people around the world infected with human immunodeficiency virus, the scores who suffer adverse side effects from AIDS medications and the roughly 1 million who die annually from AIDS-related illnesses.

The European Union Contest for Young Scientists was established by the European Commission in 1989 to encourage cooperation and the exchange of knowledge between young scientists in different nations. To get to this year’s finals in Bulgaria, competitors had to win prizes in national science competitions in their home countries – Poojan and Leo qualified by taking top honors in the Microbiology category at the 2019 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, held this May in Arizona.

Winning the national competition was “an amazing culmination” of the work he and Leo put into their research, according to Poojan, while traveling all the way to the Bulgarian capital of Sofia and taking the top prize there was “a truly fantastic experience.”

“Mostly because I met so many talented individuals from all around the world who are like-minded and passionate about science,” the Half Hollow Hills wunderkind added. “Winning the first prize feels amazing because it validates the countless hours we put into our project and science in general.”