Recognizing excellence

Students earn accolades in science, math, writing, debate, and more

April 25, 2024
Senior captures nation’s top science honor

Achyuta Rajaram ’24 remembers standing onstage at the award ceremony for the 2024 Regeneron Science Talent Search, convinced he wasn’t among the top 10 finalists. Then the announcer opened the first-place envelope and read Rajaram’s name. The four-year senior from Hopedale, Massachusetts, defied his own expectations — and took home $250,000 — by developing an automatic method to recognize which parts of artificial intelligence computer models make decisions.

Founded in 1942, the Regeneron Science Talent Search is the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) competition. Finalists have gone on to win the Nobel Prize and the National Medal of Science, among other honors. Rajaram is the second Exonian in four years to win the top prize. Yunseo Choi ’21 won in 2021 for her project, which focused on matchmaking theory.

Rajaram was among three classmates who made the top 40 finalists this year, besting a robust field of 300 scholars and 2,162 entrants. Alan Bu ’24 secured 10th place and $40,000 for a math project that gave precise limits on the number of spanning trees — the connecting points of vertices in a graph — that can exist in a planar graph. Riya Tyagi ’24 won $25,000 for her project on using computer vision to investigate how AI determines patients’ race and ethnicity. 

Though Rajaram came to Exeter focused on math and computer science, he has excelled in the science program as well, taking high-level physics and chemistry courses. In the fall of 2023, he was one of eight Exonians who traveled to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, as part of the group’s Beamline for Schools Competition. Co-head of the physics, chemistry and math clubs, Rajaram also loves jazz drumming, and has played with several small combos during his time at Exeter. Rajaram started his award-winning project last summer after reaching out to Dr. Sarah Schwettmann, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. “Computer models are primarily data-driven … which gives them immense flexibility and power to adapt to new problems and solve them consistently,” Rajaram says. “But we don’t really know what happens between the inputs and outputs of these models.”

He describes his project as “dissecting” the models, the way a biology student would dissect an animal in the lab to learn about its anatomy. “If you give these models certain image inputs,” Rajaram says, “there are clusters of neurons in the models’ ‘brain’ that light up.” After developing an algorithm to detect those clusters (or circuits) automatically, he tested its effectiveness by removing different circuits from the model to understand how they affect the model’s behavior. “In this large, very messy neural network that has a lot of parts, I was able to isolate parts of the model that are responsible for model prediction,” Rajaram says.

Team VERTEX returns to world championships

The Robotics Club’s top-ranked team, VERTEX, had another thrilling ride at the New Hampshire FIRST Tech Challenge in February, earning a return trip to the FIRST Tech Challenge World Championship in April.

The achievement capped an undefeated season, in which the VERTEX robot won first place in every qualifying tournament the team entered. It also marked an exciting turnaround: At the state competition, VERTEX lost two out of three qualifying and elimination round matches by the smallest of margins. But when it came time to hand out awards, the judges nonetheless honored VERTEX with the Inspire Award, given to “the team that best embodies the ‘challenge’ of the FIRST Tech Challenge program.” The top award guaranteed VERTEX a berth in the world championship for the second straight year.

Team VERTEX also took home the Promote Award for creating a compelling video message for the public that celebrates robotics and STEM. In all, 36 Exonians competed at the state championships in Concord; Exeter’s Team Edge finished in third place, while Avaninder Bhaghayath ’26, a member of Team VERTEX, was named an NH-FTC Dean’s List Award Finalist.

Math students shine on national and global stages

In February, a team from Exeter’s Math Club captured third place in the Sweepstakes round of HMMT, the prestigious biannual math tournament organized by students at Harvard, MIT and other nearby schools. The Sweepstakes represented the top 10 overall finishers at the event, which drew close to 1,000 top-performing high school students from around the world. In the individual rounds, Exonians came up with impressive results, including Oron Wang ’27, who placed 15th in the overall individual category, 10th in the Geometry round and fifth in the Algebra and Number Theory round. Andrew Carratu ’25 placed 17th in the overall individual category and 25th in the Algebra and Number Theory and Combinatories rounds. In March, Carratu competed in the Romanian Master of Mathematics, finishing 10th in an international field of 80 competitors and capturing a silver medal.

Debater competes in global championship

Though Emma Sordi ’25 embraces the team spirit of Parliamentary debating, she’s learning fast what it’s like to stand out at the individual level as well. In November, Sordi and three other members of the Daniel Webster Debate Society’s advanced team — Joonyoung Heo ’25, Adrian Mittal ’25 and Josh Grewal ’25 — captured first place at a tournament held at St. Paul’s School. A month later, Sordi qualified for the World Individual Debating and Public Speaking Championships with her highscoring performance in both team and individual events at a tournament held at Buckingham Browne & Nichols. As a result, Sordi headed to Canberra, Australia in April to compete in the categories of debating, persuasive speaking, interpretive reading and impromptu speaking.

This is the first time Exeter has sent debaters to the global stage in consecutive years: Colin Jung ’24 emerged as a grand finalist at the 2023 event, finishing fourth overall in the debating category. “Having Colin has been an amazing help,” Sordi says, adding that the advanced team has been stepping up its training, with three practices weekly and regular Zoom meetings during the summer and vacations. “It’s been a good year for the Daniel Webster Debate Society, and I hope to continue that.”

Mock trial team dominates state finals

Exeter’s always outstanding Mock Trial Club sent three teams to the state Mock Trial Championship at the University of New Hampshire Law School in Concord. All three teams placed in the top four at the tournament. In the finals, Exeter’s A Team faced off against a team from Bishop Guertin High School and won all five ballots, finishing more than 65 points ahead of their competitors.

This was the first time in 10 years that any team had won all ballots in the final round of state competition. At the individual level, Colin Jung ’24 and Sophie Wagner ’25 both won “Outstanding Attorney.” The A Team — Wagner, Selim Kim ’24, Ethan Benenson ’26, Kai Gowda ’27, Tamar Moskovich ’26, Charles Potjer ’24, Chad Smith ’25, Michael Nardone ’24 and Matt Grossman ’25 — will be traveling to Delaware in May to represent New Hampshire at the National High School Mock Trial Championship.

Students rack up leadership and entrepreneurship honors

A group of enterprising Exonians traveled to Manchester in mid-February to complete in the New Hampshire State Career Development Conference of the Distributive Education Clubs of America, a non-profit organization dedicated to preparing students for careers in marketing, finance, hospitality and management. Aubrey Silvestri ’25 placed first in the Principles of Hospitality Category after acing the case study portion of the competition, in which she had to assess a specific business challenge and come up with a solution on the

spot. “I was able to get exposure to a realistic situation that piqued my interest of potentially going into business in the future,” Silvestri says. “I really enjoyed working with my Exeter peers and appreciated the guidance they gave me.” Steven Chen ’25, Dhruv Nagarajan ’25, Lucy Jung ’25 and Elle Perry ’25 triumphed in the team Quizbowl competition, while Chen and Nagarajan placed first in the Start-Up Business Plan Category and Erin Chen ’25 placed first in the Hotel and Lodging Category.

Short story recognized in the Caribbean

In December, Meira Wohl ’25 headed to Georgetown, Guyana, to receive an award for a short story she wrote as part of school leaving examinations in her home country of Jamaica, known as the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate. The trip included meeting with all CSEC award winners, a tour of the city and audiences with Guyana’s president and minister of education. “It was my first time going to a Caribbean country other than Jamaica, and it was such an honor to be amongst my fellow awardees,” Wohl says.

Exeter team wins Econ Bowl

In April, Northwestern University’s Economics Department and undergraduate students hosted the seventh annual Econ Bowl for high school students around the country interested in economics and its applications. This year’s Econ Bowl saw a particularly competitive field, with 20 teams competing in person and 32 joining virtually. Gradually the competitors dwindled to four semifinalists, before Exeter’s A Team defeated Exeter’s B Team in the grand finale. “The experience was great,” Jack Gordon ’24 says. “It’s exciting to get to pursue our passion for economics on a national scale.”

This article first appeared in the spring 2024 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.