Missouri high school student wins $50,000 science prize for monkeypox bio-computational models


A high school student from Columbia, Missouri, was named one of the winners of a top science fair prize for his project that analyzes mpox, formerly known as monkeypox.

Saathvik Kannan, 17, won one of two Regeneron Young Scientist Awards at the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair in Dallas on May 19. He received a cash prize worth $50,000, according to a press release.

High school students Teepakorn Keawumdee, Pannathorn Siri and Poon Trakultangmun from Bangkok received the second Regeneron Young Scientist Award for their work on an innovative incubation chamber.

Kannan’s project, called “Bioplex: An Innovative Biocomputational Approach to Decode the 2022 Mpox Resurgence,” uses a combination of machine learning and 3D protein modeling to decode the structures that allow mpox to replicate.

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Through his project, Kannan identified mutations in the virus that potentially make it more infectious, as well as other mutations that may make it more resistant to antibiotics.

In an email to the Columbia Daily Tribune, Kannan said he was “overjoyed and incredibly excited” following his win.

I felt that it reflected our work with Dr. [Kamlendra] Singh’s mentorship and guidance over the last few years culminating in my project from this year,” the Hickman High School junior wrote. He was like any of my teachers at school, teaching me every little bit in biology or areas where I was unsure. 'Thanks' is simply not enough."

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Kannan also explained that his project could help provide "a basis for understanding several new outbreaks."

"As we have realized with COVID-19 and even mpox, any virus can go from dormancy to a full resurgence in a very short period,” he explained. “So, there is potential for another outbreak of mpox, where this research could be used."

Kannan’s journey began when he started learning Python and other programming languages at 14 years old, according to the Columbia Missourian.

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His coding skills would later help him as he dove into the field of computational biology.

In 2020, Kannan struck a partnership with Singh, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri, after the latter decided he needed a computer programmer so he “could do better [research].”

Kannan has been cited in several scientific papers since starting his partnership with Singh, including a 2020 paper about the D614G mutation in COVID-19 and a January 2021 paper that analyzes mutations in the virus.

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