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The 5th Symposium of Rising Scholars: A Celebration of 120 Young Scholars' Spectacular Research

NewsZoe Wallace and Charlotte Werbe

On September 18th, 120 students from across the globe connected virtually to present their research to an audience of over 500. This was the The Fifth Polygence Symposium of Rising Scholars. Gathering together poster presentations, elevator pitches, traditional eight-minute talks, and mentor panels, students showcased their passion projects in fields as diverse as neuroscience, literature, robotics, and more. We congratulate all students who participated in the Symposium, applauding them for their hard work and dedication.

We would also like to give special mention to the participants who won awards at the conference in recognition of creativity, presentation, argument, and insightful content. Jin Chow and Janos Perczel, co-founders of Polygence, announced the award winners on Wednesday, September 29. View the awards announcement here!

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Satvik Sharma, a high-school senior from California, won Best Elevator Pitch for his discussion of the role genes play in breast cancer, as well as the specific genes involved in DNA damage and repair. When asked about his experience at the Symposium, he expressed gratitude: “when I found out that I had won, it was certainly a great feeling as it made me feel that all the work my mentor and I had put into the project was worthwhile." Sharma highlighted that he is especially grateful to his mentor for all the knowledge he gained, which he is certain will be helpful to him for many years to come. Ojasvi Mudda, a sophomore from the Golden State, won the Audience Favorite award and like Sharma, expressed gratitude toward her mentor. She described the Symposium as a deeply transformative experience, giving her the opportunity to present on her passion project: studying subtypes of glioma cancer through the expression of complement system genes—a branch of the innate immune system with various pro-tumor effects. Like Sharma, Ojasvi values the lifelong skills she gained throughout the program and trusts they will serve her throughout her life.

“When I found out that I had won, it was certainly a great feeling as it made me feel that all the work my mentor and I had put into the project was worthwhile.”


Along with the students, Polygence mentors were also excited about the event, thrilled to serve on panels meant to help and guide students in their academic careers. These panels were an important element of the conference and one of them, How I Got Where I Am, featuring mentors Nora Lessersohn, Chiaki Sanitago, Sarah Shreck, and Gokul Ramadoss, really struck a chord for students thanks to all the great advice! For instance, mentors spent some time describing how they started off as young scholars, and the process of finding the right niche in their field of interest.

Shreck and Santiago link their success to one major factor: the mentorship they found along their academic journey. Shreck, recent Carnegie Mellon Master’s graduate in arts management, emphasized how beneficial it could be to get involved with professors working on interesting personal projects tangential to your own interests. By doing so, you might just find yourself in really unexpected places that expand your knowledge: “I continue to pull lessons from [those experiences] even in the work I do now.” Santiago, current PhD candidate in neuroscience at UCSD, wholeheartedly agreed with the notion of connecting with one’s professors. During the panel, she further explained that asking questions was the biggest asset she had for advancing her academic career: “once you [begin asking questions], people are more than willing to answer and be your guide.” She also added, “you are allowed to be in a room and you are allowed to take space and ask questions of your own curiosity because we’re all coming from different places.” Even if strange and uncomfortable, asking questions propels you forward in how you experience mentorship and research.

Professor Margot Gerritsen, the Symposium's keynote speaker and data science professor at Stanford University, also addressed how important it is to overcome societal barriers that often deter young minds from jumping right in. This is no easy feat, she explained, offering advice on the topic during her talk, Jumping into the Research Pool: The Water is Lovely. Make sure to watch her full speech, if you’re looking for a confidence boost in your academic journey!



“One of the things that is a direct result of the discomfort people have [going into research] is this feeling that they don’t belong… it’s less about what you know right now than it is about agility, becoming a fast and eager learner.” - Margot Gerritsen


Asking questions and putting yourself out there, as both the mentors and Professor Gerritsen stated, can be very scary—but so can presenting your work to a large audience! Samiksha Sriram and Geetika Mahajan, winners of Best Poster Presentation and Third Place Best Talk respectively, know all too well the feeling of nervousness associated with plunging into something new. Sriram, a Georgia native graduating high school next spring, brought to light many fascinating insights with her presentation on how Google Trends can be used to survey norovirus activity in the US. Ironically, she wasn’t quite sure about presenting at first, describing that she “[originally] had little interest in participating since even sharing [her] research with just [her] family felt daunting.” But Sriram felt differently as she began to prepare for the conference, the process itself revitalizing the love she has for her topic, and after the presentation, she felt proud of herself for overcoming her fears. Sriram was shocked to hear that she had won an award, but this shock was replaced quickly with a feeling of pride, pride she had in herself “for being able to not only present about something I love, but also win because of my admiration for this topic.” Mahajan, another senior from California, explored in her presentation the key roles art and literature play in revolutions, particularly in relation to the Arab Spring. Similar to Sriram, she was quite nervous before her talk, describing that she was “almost afraid the audience would be able to hear her [heartbeat].” Fortunately, she was able to push through, reminding herself that she would simply do her best and be proud of herself regardless of if she won an award. Clearly, it was all worth it as she was thrilled to be among the awardees recognized by the judges for the quality and poise of her presentation.

“[I had pride in myself] for being able to not only present about something I love, but also win because of my admiration for this topic.”


First Place recipient for Best Talk, Angela Predolac, a high-school junior from New York, expressed a similar sense of pride in her accomplishments. Predolac, who built a predictive machine learning model for pediatric epilepsy based on eye movement and visually-guided saccades, explained that her project was inspired by her baby cousin who has epilepsy. Despite her nerves, she was especially excited to surprise her aunt with the research she worked so hard on. She also invited many other family members to her presentation, and she was eager to share her work with them: “I wanted to impress them with the project I had been working on the whole summer, and was excited because I was really proud of what I had accomplished.”

Predolac’s personal link to her project is not so unusual in research. In fact, many researchers get involved in their field due to the inspiration they gained from personal connections. Nora Lessersohn, How I Got Where I Am panelist and PhD candidate in history at UCL, explained that she chose to pursue her research following a casual interest in her heritage. Lessersohn says she never expected a few simple questions to turn into a career. It follows, then, that one nugget of wisdom from her would be: “you never know where your academic or research interests will stem from.” The importance of being open to whatever piques your interest was one of the main lessons from the panel— the inspiration for your next research project could be closer than expected, just as it was for Predolac.

While Predolac drew inspiration from her own personal experience, other panelists were inspired by topics that weren’t necessarily directly related to their personal lives, such as the Second Place awardee for Best Talk, Sabrina Lopez, a community college student from Las Vegas who dove into the philosophy of big tech ethics. She was grateful for the opportunity to present and ecstatic upon announcement of the awards: “I've worked very hard to get to this point in my life, so it felt like a milestone for me beyond the Symposium itself. Being announced as a winner was the cherry on top.”

“I've worked very hard to get to this point in my life, so it felt like a milestone for me beyond the Symposium itself. Being announced as a winner was the cherry on top.”


Winner of the Most Innovative Award, Youssef Abdelhalim, shares similar feelings to Sabrina, as he participated in the conference more for the experience rather than the competition. A college freshman studying mechanical engineering at Northwestern University, his presentation focused on the AutoMelter: a device he invented that uses a variety of sensors to melt snow once it’s detected. One of the reasons the judges found Youssef’s project so innovative was thanks to its impactful applications. In locations that regularly receive snow, Abdelhalim argues that the AutoMelter is a must-have. It offers a faster and cheaper alternative to shoveling, plowing, or paying for a heated driveway. The device is also capable of preventing plenty of winter accidents compared to gritters (i.e., salt trucks), which are more expensive and less effective. Instead of only setting into action after a snowstorm has passed (like the gritters), the AutoMelter melts snow as soon as it touches the road, preventing it from ever sticking in the first place. What an incredible invention!

Youssef describes Polygence’s most recent Symposium as a great opportunity for “anyone who had a dream or just something cool that they were proud of and wanted to share with others.” He admitted that winning the prize caught him by surprise, but was both proud of his accomplishments and grateful to the people and opportunities that helped him along the way. He gave special thanks to his mentor who supported him throughout his project, “I honestly don't think this project would've become a physical device outside of my head if it wasn't for my mentor, Hebert. I owe him a lot!”

“[I felt like this Symposium was for] anyone who had a dream or just something cool that they were proud of and wanted to share with others.”


Just as Youssef was surprised by what emerged from his project, never thinking that it could be what it came to be, mentor Gokul Ramadoss, reflected on the winding path that was his academic journey in the panel, How I Got Where I Am. The biomedical PhD candidate at UCSF disclosed that, “where I ended up being is not what I would have foreseen in high school,” going on to add, “when you’re thinking of where your career might end up, you don’t need to think of it as a straight line, as in, ‘I want this career, so I’m going to do this.’” Instead, he urged the audience not to give up, but to do the next best thing for them. “[Doing so] will take you on a path to end up where you are.” He never could have predicted he’d go from studying environmental engineering to gene editing, but he is thrilled with where his research has taken him.

“When you’re thinking of where your career might end up, you don’t need to think of it as a straight line. [Doing what’s best for you] will take you on a path to end up where you are.”


students win research award
The Symposium awardees. Left (top to bottom): Sabrina Lopez, Ojasvi Mudda. Right (top to bottom): Samiksha Sriram, Angela Predolac. Center (top to bottom): Satvik Sharma, Youssef Abelhalim, Geetika Mahajan

At Polygence, we are incredibly proud of the presentations given by all the students who participated in the Symposium. We also want to thank each and every participant for bringing this event to life. These Symposiums are meant to showcase our students' wonderful research, and give them the opportunity to learn beyond the mentor-mentee relationship—offering a chance to connect with and take inspiration from their peers. We could not be happier as the students truly took advantage of that opportunity and made it into something mind blowing! We hope that you all continue to cultivate and share your passions. After all, the experiences of all the panelists mentioned here today and the phenomenal work of our award winners just goes to show how our interests can lead to life-fulfilling work and surprise us with amazing awards and rewards!

Our next Symposium will take place on March 26, 2022. Are you a part of the program currently and interested in presenting at our next Symposium? Are you thinking about applying to Polygence and want to know more about how you can participate in the next conference? If you’d like to be considered to present, the first step is to fill out your Polynet profile (Polygence’s version of LinkedIn). By filling out the page, you can easily share your project with those within and beyond Polygence, while also exploring the work of other students too! Better yet, your Polynet Page is the perfect way to invite people to sign up for your presentation when it comes time. For all those who are loved ones of a young innovator and may receive an invitation, don’t forget to support your students’ passions and education by staying tuned as well!

Curious to know more about our Symposia and panels? Click here

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