Indian American Arjun Neervannan uses AI to tackle cyberbullying faced by immigrants

Arjun Neervannan

Arjun’s project wins him a place among Top 40 in Regeneron Science Talent Search.

The Regeneron Science Talent Search (STS), founded and produced by Society for Science & the Public in 1942, is America’s oldest and most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors. That STS harnesses the best potential is evident from the fact that its alumni have gone on to receive more than 100 of the world’s most esteemed science and math honors including 13 Nobel Prizes.

The 300 scholars and their schools are awarded $2,000 each while the 40 finalists are awarded $25,000. Further, the 40 finalists are invited to attend a judging event in Washington DC where the top 10 students receive awards ranging from $40,000 to $250,000. This year’s awards will be announced at a black-tie gala awards ceremony at the National Building Museum on March 10.

Impressively, year after year, Indian students continue to make their presence felt at the talent search. This year nine of the 40 finalists in the Regeneron Science Talent Search are of Indian-origin, making up for about 23 percent of the finalists. The Top Scholars or the 40 finalists get to receive a minimum award of $25,000 making it one of the most respected talent searches in the US.

Arjun Neervannan, a Senior from University High School, Irvine, California was selected earlier this week as one of the Regeneron STS Top 40 after a previously selected student dropped out.

He will be attending the prestigious Jerome Fisher Management and Technology (M&T) Program at University of Pennsylvania & Wharton School of Business in fall 2020.

Arjun spoke with the American Bazaar on what it takes to qualify for the talent search and how did he prepare for the journey.

Tell us about Regeneron STS. What place did you get and what was the selection process?

Applicants have to complete individual research projects, submit a 20-page original scientific paper, provide recommendations (from teachers, project mentor and high school counselor), and offer transcripts and optional test scores.

Entries are reviewed by three or more PhD scientists, mathematicians, or engineers in the subject area of the entry. I am one of the 40 finalists taking part in the STS Finals Week March 5-11 in Washington DC.

Tell us about your project. It is very unique and especially something that would speak to immigrants who are often subjected to bullying that begins in school. Why did you think of it and why was it important?

Cyberbullying and toxic language use is a worldwide problem that affects millions of teenagers and children, especially immigrants, many of whom are subject to racist or culturally insensitive comments made online.

Having seen these hurtful comments myself online and in real life (often as early as elementary school), I wanted to change that by developing a tool that would alert, inform and educate the kids about cyberbullying and toxic language.

With the advent of AI (Artificial Intelligence), I thought it was best suited to address the challenging problem of understanding language context and provide more reliable and accurate models.

Having built the tool for county, and state science fair competitions, I applied to the Regeneron Science Talent Search to use it as a platform to raise awareness about this cyberbullying problem and the solution that I’ve come up with.

I believe that the solution to cyberbullying and many such social problems we see online can be found by applying smarter AI research. I hope my approach can be one of the ways for online forums to curb toxic comments without curbing free speech.

Being selected as one of the top 40 finalists is a major boost to my confidence and a validation of my pursuit to solve social challenges by using the latest scientific research methods.

What would you say to thousands of Regeneron aspirants? What are the goals they need to keep in mind?

I believe it all starts small; I would encourage younger students to look at the problems they face or phenomena they encounter as a starting point to get inspired, and to learn more about its root cause.

Even the smallest of projects and discoveries can be incredibly rewarding as they can have outsized impacts. No matter how complex the concept may be, if one persists, he/she will eventually figure it out, or more help will come, which would not only increase their understanding, but also in help them to tackle bigger issues or master more scientific concepts.

I would also encourage students to never take no for an answer and keep asking “why” until you get to the root of the problem.

Have a burning curiosity to learn about anything and everything, as one never knows what could be useful later and strive to challenge and improve the status quo.

Particularly talking about South Asian community where academic excellence is seen as a marker of success, what message would you like to give?

I believe that the passion for learning and incessant curiosity is more important than academic success. An inquisitive mind with a love for learning is needed to excel in anything; it is not about knowing all the answers but rather being open to new ideas and being eager to learn.

Some of the most groundbreaking discoveries that have come about have been the result of a person’s burning curiosity to think out of the box and to explore and experience the unknown.

In this regard, I believe that academic excellence is not the best indicator of success; rather, being open to new ideas, learning from failures, and thinking out of the box are far more important.


Nine Indian-origin teens among 2020 Regeneron Science Talent Search finalists (January 23, 2020)

Indian American teens Adam Ardeishar, Eshika Saxena among top winners in 2019 Regeneron Science Talent Search (March 13, 2019)

A whopping 42.5 percent of finalists in the 2019 Regeneron Science Talent Search are of Indian origin (January 24, 2019)

Nearly 40 percent of 2018 Regeneron Science Talent Search finalists are Indian American students (March 5, 2018)

Indian American teen Indrani Das wins $250,000 top prize in Regeneron Science Talent Search (March 16, 2017)

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