Aaron J. Yeiser spent last year on a heavy-duty math project that most of his fellow 18-year-olds – heck, most anybody – can only begin to comprehend: developing a new method to analyze turbulent air flow.
On Tuesday night, Yeiser experienced turbulence of a different kind.
The senior at Perkiomen Valley High School won second place in the national Regeneron Science Talent Search, an honor that comes with a $175,000 award.
"I'm very, very excited," he said moments after hearing the news. "I really thought that all of the projects were really amazing."
Alex Townsend, an assistant professor of mathematics at Cornell University who served as Yeiser's mentor, predicted a bright future for the young man.
"I don't know any other 18-year-old that could have gotten to this stage," Townsend said. "I don't think I could have even comprehended what he was doing when I was 18."
More than 1,700 high school seniors entered the Regeneron competition, of which 40 were named finalists in January, including Yeiser. They have spent the past several days in Washington, undergoing a final round of judging and sharing their projects with the public at the National Geographic Society.
The $250,000 first prize went to Indrani Das, 17, of Oradell, N.J., who studied a potential treatment for brain cells that are dying because of injury or neurodegenerative disease.
Previously sponsored by Intel, the competition is a program of the nonprofit Society for Science and the Public.
The Philadelphia region often fares well in the event. In 2016, Berwyn teenager Michael Zhang won a $75,000 award for his work with CRISPR-Cas9, a powerful gene-editing tool.
Yeiser, of Schwenksville, did his prize-winning work as part of MIT Primes, a highly competitive research program that pairs high schoolers with university mentors such as Cornell's Townsend.
Townsend told Yeiser that others in his field had been searching for a better method to solve certain kinds of complex turbulent-flow problems, such as when air flows over an airplane wing at very high speeds or when the wing is covered with snow. Then he turned the high schooler loose.
"Aaron did everything," Townsend said. "I just prod him and make sure he stays on the right track."
The solution involved representing the turbulence with a series of "skinny triangles," Townsend said. Yeiser developed a sophisticated algorithm, essentially a set of instructions for solving the triangle problem, by using partial differential equations, a powerful mathematical tool. The teenager tested his method using a supercomputer at Cornell, Townsend said.
Before the turbulent-flow project, Yeiser worked on research at Ursinus College with Akshaye Dhawan, an associate professor of computer science. That work involved developing a more efficient way to configure networks of electronic sensors, and has been published in IEEE Xplore, an academic journal.
Like Cornell's Townsend, Dhawan was startled by the speed with which Yeiser picked up concepts.
"I have never encountered a more gifted individual," Dhawan said. "Otherwise he is a normal high school kid – easy to talk to, soft-spoken, a little shy, but a very nice person."
When not doing math and computer science, Yeiser runs on the cross-country and track teams at Perkiomen Valley. In the summer, he teaches sailing. In the fall, he plans to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology.