Horace Greeley High School senior Jiayi Peng has won a $50,000 prize after finishing second in a national science competition, the Chappaqua school district announced.
She advanced to the final round of the 2012 Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology and presented her finding on Monday in Washington, DC. at George Washington University. She was just one of six finalists, the district noted in its announcement, which went out as part of its December newsletter.
Peng is enrolled in the school's Science Research program, which lasts for three school years and includes course work on analysis, picking a research topic and critical thinking. Her winning project is called “A Cellular Automaton Model for Critical Dynamics in Neuronal Networks,” which could, the district explains, help figure out how neurological mechanisms can tell the difference between a brain that is healthy and one that has illnesses such as Alzheimer’s or autism.
Peng's project took about 1,200 hours over two and a half years to work on, the district said. Her work, according to the district, involved creating a computer model of a neuronal network and studying "critical avalanches of neural activity" that are linked with emotions, thoughts and actions.
“I have always been fascinated by mathematics since elementary school,” Peng said in a monthly newsletter sent out by the school district. “What sparked my interest in research was an article in Scientific American that explained how mathematicians could model terrorist groups’ social and communication networks to predict their behavior. I was interested in how mathematics could be applied to such real world problems and explain complex behavior. As I began to read more about networks and mathematical modeling, I became interested in the idea of self-organized criticality, which has broad applications, including the neuronal network.”
“Jiayi’s model utilizes a remarkably simply feedback mechanism that allows it to reach and maintain a critical state,” Dr. Markus Deserno, a judge at the event and Carnegie Mellon University professor, said in the district's newsletter. “Since critical avalanches are often missing from brains with disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and schizophrenia, Jiayi’s contribution also sheds new light onto these neurological conditions. Someday, her work might help us find a treatment for these ailments.”
Peng has more good news, as a paper she has been working on, called “Attaining and Maintaining Criticality in a Neuronal Network Model,” will be published in Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications, the district noted.
A video of Peng's presentation can be found here.