Exeter senior wins $90,000 in science competition

Neil Chowdhury ’22 earns a fifth-place finish in the nationwide Regeneron Science Talent Search.

Sarah Pruitt '95
March 28, 2022

When Neil Chowdhury ’22 first joined MIT PRIMES, the high school research program in mathematics, engineering and science run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he was interested in working on a project in computer science. He didn’t expect to be paired with a mentor in the unfamiliar field of computational biology, or to end up developing a computer model to study the 3D structure of the human genome.

As luck would have it, that’s just what happened — and Chowdhury made the most of it. “I got to work with new data that’s basically been in existence for only about 20 years,” he says. “I was really excited by the idea of being one of the first people to examine that data and see what we can learn from it.”

The resulting project, which uses polymer simulation to investigate how human DNA is affected by the modification of proteins implicated in colon cancer, earned Chowdhury a spot as one of 40 finalists (out of some 1,800 original entrants) in the 2022 Regeneron Science Talent Search. After a rigorous week of presenting his work to the judging panel and bonding with his fellow competitors in Washington, D.C., in mid-March, he captured fifth place, bringing home an impressive $90,000 in prize money.

Launched in 1942 by the Society for Science, the Science Talent Search is the nation’s oldest and most prestigious high school science competition, aiming to identify and encourage the science and engineering pioneers of the future. Past recipients have gone on to win the Nobel Prize and National Medal of Science among myriad honors. Last year, Exeter’s Yunseo Choi ’21 joined their ranks, taking home first place for her project on matching theory.

In a video shown during the awards ceremony, Chowdhury said he draws inspiration from working with his fellow Exonians, including younger students. He serves as head or co-head of Exeter’s physics, math and chemistry clubs as well as the Science Bowl team. Chowdhury also credits Science Instructors Alison Hobbie and J. Albert Léger and Math Instructor Diana Davis with supporting his research and guiding his broader STEM education at Exeter.

Beyond the Regeneron competition, Chowdhury sees a broader purpose for his prize-winning project, titled “Modeling the Effect of Histone Methylation on Chromosomal Organization in Colon Cancer Cells.” He plans to continue building on his work through an ongoing affiliation with the Mirny Lab at MIT, where he will attend college next year. “The 3D genome is likely important for a number of genetic processes, like gene regulation, gene expression and even mitosis, the formation of chromosomes,” Chowdhury says. “Trying to explain the actual molecular mechanisms that give rise to those effects will help us gain a fundamental understanding of how that works.”