2024 Writing prompt

Dr. Hilleman made his impact on the world through the development of vaccines. What scientific issue would you take on if given the chance and why?

2024 Student winners 


Middle School 
Pramathas Paul (1st Place)
Kai Salgado (2nd Place)

High School
Jade Amberg (1st Place) 
Hayden Wu (2nd Place) 


Middle School 
Jacob Rogers (1st Place)
Esther Schonberger (2nd Place)

High School
Mara McClellan (1st Place) 
Lexie Gordon (2nd Place) 


Scroll down to read or listen to the winning essays (posted in alphabetical order by winner's last name). 

2024 Teacher winners 

  • Georgia Byers, Colonel By Secondary School, Gloucester, ON
  • Jacob Cheung, École Robert A. McMath Secondary, Richmond, BC
  • Julie Kokan, Pope High School, Marietta, GA
  • Lauren Martini, Foote School, New Haven, CT
  • John Mead, St. Mark’s School of Texas, Dallas, TX
  • Jiju Rachel Sam, Tribune Drive Public School, Brampton, ON
  • Charles Zeiher, Saline High School, Saline, MI

Teachers listed on winning entries each received a signed book written by Paul A. Offit, MD; and a 1-year membership to the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT), compliments of NABT.

The Vaccine Education Center would like to thank our 2024 contest co-sponsors:

2024 essay contest co-sponsor logos

We would also like to thank Mrs. Lorraine Hilleman for her ongoing support and participation in the contest. 


Ne m’oublie pas (Do Not Forget Me)
Winner: Jade Amberg, 1st Place, High School, Canada

 Hear a recording of Jade's essay.

Download Jade's essay in French, as it was originally composed. 

If I had the opportunity to address a scientific problem, and make a positive impact on people, as Maurice Hilleman was able to do with his vaccines, I would join the fight against dementia. Dementia is not a single disease, but rather a set of symptoms. This condition encompasses a number of features, such as memory loss, decline in language and judgment, loss of coordination, mood and personality changes, and difficulty in doing simple things, such as standing, sitting and eating. The disease generally worsens over time and destroys brain neurons little by little, damaging a person's physical and cognitive abilities. The causes of dementia are not completely clear, and much scientific research still needs to be done to better understand this disease, which causes the fifth highest overall death toll. Today, the main cause of dementia is Alzheimer's disease, which accounts for 70% of cases. Factors such as advanced age, social isolation, or lack of frequent exercise have been associated with a higher risk of dementia, however, the exact cause of this condition remains unknown. Currently, over 60 million people are diagnosed with dementia, a figure that continues to rise exponentially.

Today, our society has a high concentration of people who are aging: the baby-boomer generation. With so many new elderly people, cases of dementia are set to triple, with an estimated 153 million cases by 2050. People affected by dementia require a great deal of care, and the costs in time and money can add up quickly. In 2019, the economic burden of dementia in the United States was over $500 billion and is estimated to rise to $1.5 trillion by 2050. It's only a matter of time before we have neither the infrastructure, resources nor personnel needed to accommodate this colossal wave of people living with dementia.

But it wasn't the economic consequences that made me choose this scientific problem. I chose to address dementia because it is one of the world's saddest and cruelest diseases, and not only for the sufferer, but also for his or her loved ones and family. 

Six years ago, my grandfather was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia. It is difficult to know when the disease actually began. The changes were slow and discrete, and stretched on for a very long time. My dear grandfather quietly lost the ability to eat, speak, or make the slightest movement on his own. His entire life, his memories, his wishes and desires, his best and worst moments, were forgotten. His eyes, once so proud and bright, are now empty and emotionless. This breaks the hearts of my father and aunt, distraught to see their father like this. And of course, it's especially difficult for my grandmother, who did everything with my grandfather, together for over 50 years. Day and night, she stayed by his side, devoted, and looked after him with the help of attendants. It took our family a long time to accept that my grandfather was no longer really with us. His words, his touching gestures and his devotion left us far too long ago. I was only eight years old when my grandfather was diagnosed, and I never had a chance to really get to know him. Only the shadow of his body remains, a painful reminder of who he once was.

Imagine for a moment the person you love most in the world. And now imagine watching them gradually lose their memory. Finding it harder and harder to find their way around. Forgetting important moments spent together. Losing the ability to walk or talk. Changing behavior and developing a lack of interest in other people's feelings. Imagine going to visit them one day and finding that, to them, you're just a stranger to them. Finally realizing that the person you loved so much has long ago faded away.

Isn't that a tragedy?

This would become the reality for over 150 million families in the years that followed. But the positive side of dementia is that it is partly preventable, as factors such as adequate sleep, physical activity, and a good diet, have been shown to reduce the risk of the disease. As Maurice Hilleman has so admirably demonstrated with his determination and passion, I believe that finding a cure or preventive treatment (perhaps even a vaccine!) for dementia is a possibility for the future, but this would require a long process of work and scientific research.

Let's act right now, for the next generation.
For the millions of people who risk fading away little by little.
For their families and friends, who love them so much.
For the grandparents of so many children.

A Chance to Restore Function: The Future of BCI Accessibility
Winner: Lexie Gordon, 2nd place, High School, United States 

 Hear a recording of Lexi's essay.

Dr. Hilleman’s work in the development of vaccines prevented millions of deaths. The creation of accessible, reliable Brain Computer Interface Technology (“BCI”) could also change millions of lives. If given the chance, I would take on the scientific issue of creating reliable BCI technology that is accessible to all who need it. This technology would both be vital to a greater understanding of the brain’s inner workings and could greatly improve the quality of life of those with neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders.

An article from the National Library of Medicine describes BCI as technologies with the purpose of communicating with neural sensory organs or the central nervous system. This article reveals that BCIs could provide a channel of communication that is not reliant on muscle, which could be crucial to restoring communication and operation of neural prosthetics. “Smart” BCIs, which use AI assistance, have already led to a greater understanding of neurophysiology and improved the quality of life of patients with paralysis. In an article from the MIT Technology Review, Cassandra Willyard details that studies involving the use of AI algorithms and BCI technology have shown the remarkable capacity to increase the ability to communicate for those affected by ALS and brain stem strokes. In both studies, the participant was a woman who could no longer speak intelligibly. Pat Bennett, one study’s participant, lost this ability due to ALS and, after having a recording device implanted, was able to speak at around half the normal rate. The other study’s participant, Ann, lost the ability to speak intelligibly due to a brain stem stroke and also gained the ability to speak at about half the normal rate after a different recording device was implanted. In this study, for the first-time, speech was directly decoded from brain signals after AI algorithms were used. Additionally, this study achieved the incredible feat of creating an avatar that could express three different emotions at different intensities using captured muscle signals. These successes demonstrate the potential this technology possesses to change the lives of those with neurological disorders and provides faces for why this research is so important. 

The successes already achieved in BCI applications thus far are incredible, but, unfortunately, most BCI applications are in the clinical stage and not ready for widespread use. In order to be more widely accessible, BCI technology still needs to improve in several areas such as receiving feedback in real time, reducing the training periods needed, and affordability. The combination of AI and BCI allows for the electric signals of the brain to be read more efficiently offering a promising path forward to real time feedback and a reduction in training periods. I would like to take on creating more efficient AI algorithms that decode brain signals in order to increase the accessibility of BCI technology. Dr. Maryam Shanechi’s DFINE method, a neural-network model that allows for flexible inference, demonstrates the vital role technological models play in advancing neurotechnologies such as BCI due to DFINE’s ability to predict neural behavior. The advancement of reliable neural-network models could pave the way for even more medical benefit. In addition to restoring motor function, BCI’s could be used to decode moods allowing for more objective diagnosis of psychiatric disorders. 

BCI is currently not affordable to the general public or readily accessible outside of laboratory settings with the National Institute of Health estimating that even noninvasive BCI is priced at between 5,000 and 10,000 dollars before costly technical support. Artificial intelligence may be able to reduce the amount of technical support necessary for BCI by providing a greater understanding of the brain’s neural networks and allowing for reduced feedback delays. In an article for the New York Times, Oliver Whang details that Gert-Jan Oskam was able to more efficiently adapt to a brain-spine interface due to an algorithm allowing for small variations of his muscle contraction and relaxation’s speed and direction. This coupled with only a 300-millisecond gap between signals sent between the brain and spine helped Mr. Oskam see clear movement improvement even without the help of a brain-spine interface. The application of AI to BCI has the amazing ability to improve quality of life for those with neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders through the advancement of mood and motor BCI’s.

I would love to take on the scientific issue of making Brain Computer Interface technology accessible to all who need it by increasing its reliability through AI. I have always been passionate about how STEM could be used to change the lives of people for the better and believe that this scientific issue is the perfect avenue to create a better world and advance understanding of the brain.

Collateral Damage
Winner: Mara McClellan, 1st Place, High School, United States 

 Hear a recording of Mara's essay.

Nobody is ever ready to learn that their mom has cancer, but when the news came, I felt especially unprepared. I had no reason to think that my mom was anything but healthy. Throughout my life, she had always eaten fruits and vegetables, attended dance classes, and avoided cigarettes and alcohol. She hadn’t been experiencing any symptoms of cancer that I knew of. I was watching my friend’s swim meet while she was at her doctor’s appointment – which I believed was a checkup – and she came to pick me up when she said she would. When I climbed into the car, though, I immediately felt that something was wrong. Her face was painted with an unfamiliar expression of strained calm, her eyes were clouded with unreadable thoughts, and the space between us was so charged with tension that I could have reached out and cut it with a knife. She tried to break the news as gently as she could, making it seem as if breast cancer was simply a mere inconvenience; yet despite her best efforts, she soon began to cry, and I did too. It seemed so unfair that my mom, who had always been loving, hardworking, and kind, was suddenly faced with a terrible disease.

Thankfully, her cancer was highly treatable and she had a lot of options. The options, though, tormented her almost as much as her cancer did: Should she opt for a double mastectomy or a less aggressive surgery? Should she choose to undergo radiation? Should she do chemotherapy? What about hormone therapy? After her surgery to remove the tumor, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and hormone therapy could all decrease her odds of the cancer coming back, but their side effects scared all of us. Chemotherapy could target rapidly dividing cells, thereby ensuring that all of the cancer cells were gone, but she would likely experience fatigue, hair loss, an increased risk of infections, and other harmful side effects. Radiation could kill cancer cells that remained after surgery, but it could also cause a second primary cancer to develop years after. Hormone therapy could slow or stop the growth of her hormone receptor-positive cancer, but it would send her into early menopause, resulting in decreasing bone density, hot flashes, and mood swings, along with other side effects. Her life, once a narrative that she had control of, became a maddening, endless list of pros and cons. Each option was an effective weapon in the battle against her cancer, but each treatment would inflict collateral damage on her entire body.

Cancer is awful enough; cancer patients, who may be experiencing one of the worst events of their lives, should not have to suffer as a result of their treatments. Therefore, I plan to spend my life researching this scientific issue: How can we develop cancer treatments that harm the cancer, not the person? In a world where we can send people to the moon and return them safely to Earth, I don’t think it is far-fetched to imagine a future where instead of making impossible choices between frightening treatments, cancer patients could simply take a pill and soon be cured. Cancer cells are different from normal cells, after all: their DNA differs from that of a healthy cell, and they exhibit abnormal behaviors that a healthy cell never does. It must be possible to develop a treatment that identifies these differences and attacks the cancer cells – only the cancer cells. Perhaps a treatment could induce apoptosis in the cancer cells, make them produce an antigen that the immune system can use to identify and attack them, or fix their unique constellation of genetic mutations that allowed them to cause problems in the first place. I dream of a future where such treatments exist, do not cause major side effects, and are affordable and accessible for all cancer patients. I dream of a future without collateral damage.

Breathe In, Breathe Out
Winner: Pramathas Paul, 1st Place, Middle School, Canada  

 Hear a recording of Pramathas' essay.

Studying science is critical and requires accuracy. One of the crucial categories in science is studying diseases. Dr. Maurice Hilleman is one of those people who had studied diseases and developed over 40 vaccines to combat them. Some of the most commonly known vaccines are Measles, Hepatitis B, and Rubella. Through his constant aspiration to develop vaccines, Dr. Hilleman made and is still making his impact on the world by saving eight million lives every year. Throughout the modern ages, vaccines are used for practically any form of virus and are the most effective ways to help save lives daily.

If I were given a chance to take on a scientific issue just like the great Dr. Hilleman, it would be the disease COPD, (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). This disease is a critical illness. But, what is COPD? COPD is a lung virus that causes airflow blockage, meaning that the virus arrogates the lungs and creates a shortness of breath. The feeling of not being able to get air in and out is dreadful. About 328 million people around the world are suffering COPD today. People aged 40 and older mostly have COPD and are suffering from it. However, many can live up to their 80’s, even with COPD.

What inspired me to opt for this illness is because the disease does not have a therapeutic cure. COPD is an extraordinary disease, but it will be dangerous if it spreads in the lungs. Although there is no precise cure, if signs of this disease are noticed earlier on, there are procedures and medications that can act up against this virus. Some of which include COPD medication, surgery, Endobronchial Valve therapy, and avoiding possible causes for the disease such as smoking.

I would participate in this issue if I had a chance by researching the disease’s weakness and using that to create a cure. In fact, microbiologists, doctors, and scientists are already working hard to dissolve this illness. Medicine is the first solution. In 2017, a medicine treatment called DUPIXENT was produced by a European pharmaceutical company and gave promising results of combating COPD. This medicine comes in the form of an injection, and once injected, it helps improve breathing. So, this would be a short-term cure for COPD. Another solution may be inhalers that can increase airflow by pushing in medicine straight to the lungs. This may allow the lungs to collect air and help patients who have COPD breathe easier and healthier.

COPD can be difficult to understand at first glance, so let's break down the stages. This disease has four distinct stages. The first stage is mild shortness of breathing and often dry coughing. The second stage is coughing persistently, increased shortness of breathing, feeling tired, and having sleeping problems. The third stage is severe COPD. That means the person who is witnessing COPD begins to experience more symptoms, which can include the following: shortness of breathing that has become worse or occurs more often. There can be more dry coughing. Changes in thickness or amount of mucus. Finally, the fourth stage is considered very severe. The person struggles to breathe, sometimes might seem life-threatening. The heart rate goes up hugely and crackling sounds might be heard from the chest. People who have COPD have a very high chance of developing lung cancer.

We all know that smoking directly causes lung and heart problems, so we can guess that this also creates chances of developing COPD. In fact, one cause is that some humans smoke. If it is continued, then this formulates harmful particles that traps inside the lungs, which grow and establish more particles. Soon, there will be risks of lung viruses. COPD is one of those lung viruses. Of course, smoking is not the only cause. Many patients suffer from this disease because of exposure to air pollution, or because of genetics.

It’s not impossible to prevent COPD from occurring. The first tip on how to decrease it is by stopping smoking. This disease isn’t created in a single day. The second tip is to see a doctor and take medication properly. This tip goes for any person, not only those who suffer from COPD or have a chance of developing it. The third tip is to exercise regularly and keep a routine to exercise. Adding onto tip three, the fourth tip is to maintain a healthy weight. Lastly, the fifth tip is to get vaccinated, whether that is the regular flu vaccine, or someone that aims to fight COPD.

Ultimately, COPD is a dangerous virus that can impact so many people’s lives, but it is a rare disease. Many people have this disease but are unaware as they haven’t been diagnosed, so it is of the utmost importance that people regularly get checked up and stay up to date with their vaccines. It is a harsh disease and can be very draining, so it is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle by following those five tips. Though COPD is not curable, doctors are trying to find a cure, and if I had a chance to work with these microbiologists to create a cure, I would. To have a fulfilling life, it takes determination, but we also need to look at the positive side.

“Every day may not be good, but there is something good in every day. Focus on the good, no matter how diminutive it is.” 
                                                                                                                 - Alice Morse Earle

Using Neuroplasticity as a Treatment Tool
Winner: Jacob Rogers, 1st Place, Middle School, United States

 Hear a recording of Jacob's essay.

My sister and I are less than a year apart. We were born in two different countries under very different circumstances. However, we both struggled with developmental challenges growing up which forged our close bond.

My sister was born with a mild case of cerebral palsy. She is hemiplegic on the left side of her body which means that she has weakness affecting her entire left side, including her left arm and leg, caused by damage to the right side of her brain. When she was young, she experienced many developmental delays because of her condition.

I was adopted from Ethiopia when I was two years old. When I arrived in the United States, I also faced many different challenges. I was barely walking, had trouble eating and couldn’t say a single word. My sister and I spent our first few years together being shuttled around to countless therapy sessions, where we learned to overcome our neurological challenges. Today, with only a slight limp, my sister doesn’t let anything hold her back. She is great at swimming and biking and is even on her school’s field hockey team. Similarly, I have overcome many of my challenges. I am now a good athlete, can eat almost anything (except carrots), and enjoy drama class where I can recite my lines without any trouble.

My sister and I were able to get better because of neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to adapt and change throughout a person’s life. Humans are born with many nerve cells called neurons. When we learn new things, our brain sends messages from one neuron to another. If we do the same thing over and over again, our brain makes a connection or pathway between neurons. Neuroplasticity is when the brain forms new neural connections and reorganizes existing ones. This is especially important when an existing pathway is damaged. This can happen for many reasons including traumatic brain injury, stroke, and neurological disorders.

In my sister's case, some pathways in her brain were damaged when she experienced a stroke while my mother was still pregnant with her. Through targeted therapy, she learned to walk and use her left side by making new paths in her brain to control inactive muscles. These therapies rerouted signals through different pathways, helping her with muscle control and movement. Similarly, in my case, certain areas of my brain did not develop or function at their best. However, neuroplasticity allowed my brain to work around these problem areas by finding other pathways or recruiting neighboring brain regions to perform specific tasks. 

I have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), which is a neurodevelopmental disorder that makes it difficult for me to concentrate and remember information. If I could take on any scientific issue, it would be to study how neuroplasticity can help children with ADD or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) overcome their symptoms without taking medication.

ADD/ADHD is one of the most common diagnosed neurodevelopmental disorders in the world. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of 2016, 6.1 million children aged 2-17 had been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD. Studying how neuroplasticity can help children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders can positively impact millions of people. 

Although there are many types of medications to treat ADD/ADHD, including stimulants, non-stimulants, and antidepressants, medication is not a perfect solution. First of all, the CDC reports that only 1 out of 20 U.S. children take medication to address their symptoms. Medications come with side effects, like making you not want to eat. They also require going to the doctor frequently to see if the medication is working and to make adjustments. Additionally, medication is limited or unaffordable in many parts of the world, which prevents children from getting the help they need. 

In 2016, just 47 percent of U.S. children aged 2-17 with ADD/ADHD received any form of behavioral treatment for their symptoms. However, cognitive treatment plans can improve ADD/ADHD symptoms through neuroplasticity by encouraging the brain to reorganize itself. Researching neuroplasticity in children with ADD/ADHD symptoms could lead to a low cost and accessible treatment option for children with attention disorders worldwide.

What if the Problem Doesn’t Look Like a Problem at All?
Winner: Kai Salgado, 2nd Place, Middle School, Canada

 Hear a recording of Kai's essay.

Imagine having a disease that makes your cheeks puffy, your jaw swollen, and causes a high fever. That’s what Jeryl Lynn Hilleman was suffering from, but luckily her dad, Maurice Hilleman, was a microbiologist. Soon after he developed a vaccine for mumps, he realized there were many other dangerous diseases that needed cures as well. Clearly, everyone recognized that many of these diseases were urgent problems that needed solutions, and Hilleman believed he could make a scientific impact that would change the way we manage disease. 

What if the problem doesn’t look like a problem at all? What if it’s something that looks exciting, engaging, fun, creative, and gives you a way to connect with others? What if it’s an easy way for parents to get their children busy and out of their hair? You're probably wondering what I’m talking about. I'm talking about technology. Surprisingly, my parents saw the dangers, and they never let me have my own device until I needed one for online learning. I was always jealous of my friends because they would be able to play games that I had never even seen before. I was pretty upset about that, but now I see it was a blessing because if I had technology from a really young age, I wouldn’t have gotten to hang out with my friends outside and have all these amazing memories.

There are lots of positives to technology that can’t be shrugged off. Probably the most beneficial part of technology is the ability to connect with others through social media platforms, video games, email, and messaging apps. Technology not only connects us with people we know, but it can also connect us with new people and new opportunities. For example, LinkedIn can connect individuals with hundreds of employers. For people who have a hard time socializing in person, technology might provide a way to connect that feels easier because you are not face-to-face. Another huge benefit of technology is that it has greatly increased the amount of knowledge we are able to access, and therefore, it can increase our learning and our ability to innovate. For example, a search engine such as Google gets 8.5 billion searches per day worldwide. Technology is also useful for making tasks more efficient. For example, banking apps can help us manage our money online, Chat GPT can help us write documents, essays, and reports, and search engines can help us narrow down information very quickly. Technology has also led to many important advancements in almost every field, including medicine, engineering, and aerospace. Lastly, technology can simply be a lot of fun. There are endless games to play. YouTube can provide entertaining videos on video games. 

Despite all these benefits of technology, there are some problems that need to be taken seriously. In addition, the addictive nature of technology multiplies all these problems further. As mentioned earlier, one of the main benefits of technology is being able to connect with others, but not every interaction is going to be positive. For example, cyberbullying is on the rise and is very harmful. Cyberbullying can cause people to experience poor mental health, possibly suffer from depression, lead to thoughts of suicide, and decrease self-esteem. Many parents allow their kids to use technology without fully understanding the consequences of unlimited and unmonitored usage. Smartphones, gaming devices, and social media platforms were all created by marketing geniuses to look non-threatening, and therefore, parents are allowing younger and younger children to have their own devices. This has meant a more frequent and longer amount of technology time every day. Research is showing that attention span has greatly decreased since the increase in screen time, and some parents notice mood changes when technology is taken away from their children. Another problem is with certain video games, such as Fortnite, Call of Duty, or Valorant, which tend to trigger fights or flights and therefore release adrenaline and increase dopamine levels. This pattern, repeated over time, leaves kids seeking out more and more of these online experiences and feeling addicted. Research shows that there are actual changes to the brain that look similar to changes that take place when you’re addicted to a chemical drug. Not to mention, all of this is happening in youth when their brains are in the process of developing, and therefore certain parts of a youth’s brain may be negatively impacted. 

In conclusion, technology has many benefits that, if used properly, could be very beneficial for learning, connecting, and innovating. The government needs to make rules about how companies are allowed to market technological products and platforms to children and youth so that they are less likely to be addictive. In addition, there needs to be more honesty about the dangers so that parents can make healthier choices for their children. In my opinion, as a society, we need to look at technology in a more balanced way. 

Scientific Setbacks: Inspiration to Action
Winner: Esther Schonberger, 2nd Place, Middle School, United States

 Hear a recording of Esther's essay.

Just as Dr. Hilleman decided to spend his life working to solve a problem he saw around him, if I were given the opportunity to take on any scientific issue, I would take on a mission to share a privilege that I access every day – potable drinking water. According to the United Nations, approximately 3.5 million people die each year from complications caused from drinking untreated water, and more than half of those deaths are children. Millions of people around the world spend the majority of their lives walking to, fetching, or worrying about water. Many children living in scorching or tropical regions such as Northern Africa and India, can spend up to eight hours of their day finding and carrying water to supply their families. Even if these children do manage to find water from the unpredictable places they rely on to stay alive, the chances of that water being clean are extremely rare.

Finding ways to clean that drinking water is extremely hard, as boiling water requires energy and will only reduce the limited amount these people already have. Other purification methods like the ability to filter water require access to adequate filtration - a privilege that not many in the world can afford. This is mainly because of high expenses and not readily available filtration systems. Because the dirty water is too often consumed, millions of people are left high and dry, because the only water they have could be contaminated with hundreds of waterborne diseases such as typhoid, diphtheria, giardia, and much more, that could result in sickness and then death. The sad reality is that this is also getting worse. Because of climate change and increases in populations around the world, more and more people will soon lose their ability to get clean water and thus impact their entire lives. This is a serious problem that is not just affecting other countries, but has also come up in recent years in the United States, which is considered a well-developed country. Last summer, many cities in the U.S. advised their residents to boil water before drinking it for many reasons like sewage leakage, and others had to warn against lead poisoning which required specialized filtration to address. This has happened in cities such as New York, NY; Jackson, MS; Flint, MI; Baltimore, MA; and so many more. Cases of people not being able to get potable water are happening everywhere.

The clean water crisis caught my eye when we learned about it in school, because of where I have grown up. I live about a five-minute drive, or ten-minute walk, from Maltby Lakes, the freshwater reserve that used to supply drinking water for the majority of the city of New Haven, Connecticut. Living in close proximity to so much clean, freshwater never seemed like a big deal to me, until I became aware of all of the people for whom getting water, let alone clean drinking water, is such a tremendous feat. I have the privilege of never worrying about water, but that is not the case for so many individuals around the world. For many people, the struggle to access clean drinking water can affect their ability to pursue their education, help their family, and live healthy lives. Knowing that people struggle with this when I live so close to what appears to be all of the water in the world is powerful.

When Dr. Hilleman observed a catastrophe spiraling downhill around him, that of children dying from illnesses, he did something about it. It is inspiring, and quite frankly amazing, that Dr. Hilleman dedicated his life to improving the world. Just as I assume Dr. Hilleman felt about his world, I yearn to do something about this crisis facing mine. His impact changed the world, and I want to change the world too. Solving this huge crisis would take years of research, experimenting, and thinking, just as any problem would, but if given the chance I would want to do that tremendous amount of work on this problem, one I am passionate and deeply engaged in. If I could make as big of an impact on the world as Dr. Hilleman’s, I would work on solving the problem of clean drinking water for all.

Unlocking the Brain for Future Advancements
Winner: Hayden Wu, 2nd Place, High School, Canada

 Hear a recording of Hayden's essay.

In a world of myriad issues and challenges, the spotlight has now turned to youths who are hungry to make global changes and advancements. As we stand at the intersection of past scientific achievements and uncharted scientific frontiers, we are constantly reminded of past scientists' legacies such as Dr. Hilleman, serving as a testament to scientific inquiry. His groundbreaking contribution to vaccine development not only saved the lives of millions during the 1957-1958 Asian flu pandemic, but he also led the development of eight of the fourteen vaccines now routinely recommended to prevent childhood illness. Yet, in the face of such remarkable achievement, we are simultaneously overwhelmed by the daunting number of scientific issues that persist in the world. 

One compelling issue grabs my interest and attention - the need for a more comprehensive understanding of the human brain. Despite rapid medical advancements in the past decade, the human brain remains an intricate puzzle waiting to be solved. The increase in mental health crises and neurological disorders in recent years underscores the importance of untangling the complexities of the brain for the betterment of humanity and for revolutionizing medical treatment that could enhance the lives of countless individuals worldwide. Furthermore, unlocking the secrets of the brain is key to the future development of artificial intelligence, bridging the gap between medical advancement and technological innovation. By exploring the intricacies of the human brain, we not only address the pressing issues surrounding neurological disorders, but we also contribute to the advancement of artificial intelligence, opening new horizons in both fields. 

Grasping the intricacies of the brain is critical for advancing the treatments of neurological disorders. For instance, Alzheimer’s disease is currently ranked as the seventh leading cause of death in the United States, impacting more than six million Americans. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one in three seniors with Alzheimer's or another dementia succumbs to the condition. Yet, despite the staggering data and prevalence of the disease, there is no cure, and the cause of the disease remains ambiguous. The persistence of this issue is rooted in the lack of fundamental understanding of both the disease and the brain. An in-depth and systematic research of specific mechanisms of the disease and its effects on the brain could lead to the development of targeted and neuroprotective therapies to protect the nervous system from injury and damage, alleviate symptoms, and unveil a cure. While unraveling the complexities of the brain may seem like an inconceivable task, this monumental scientific feat holds the promise of a positive and healthier future for the countless individuals globally grappling with neurological disorders. 

Enhancing our understanding of the brain not only contributes further knowledge to the field of neuroscience but also propels the advancement of artificial intelligence (AI). Neuroscience and AI are interconnected science disciplines. For example, artificial neural networks (ANN), a branch of machine learning, is the core of deep learning algorithms that mimic biological neuron signaling. This AI system is already incorporated into our everyday lives as machine translation, speech recognition, and medical diagnosis. In a study conducted by The Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital) and Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute, researchers discovered that neural networks with human-like connectivity outperformed their counterparts in cognitive memory tasks. This finding highlights the significance of AI systems that mimic the brain’s biological connectivity for enhanced performance. As our understanding of the human brain and its processes progresses, AI systems will also evolve simultaneously. The symbiotic relationship enables researchers to create AI systems that not only replicate human cognition but are useful to our self-discovery and understanding of the brain’s inner workings. In addition, the possible application of AI systems will extend to solving complex problems that require human-like logical reasoning and creativity, making undertaking challenges beyond the capabilities of traditional AI algorithms and machines possible. 

As I embark on my scientific journey to comprehend the brain, I carry the responsibility to push the limits of scientific knowledge and improve health outcomes. Simultaneously, I remain inspired by Dr. Hilleman’s work which not only shaped the course of history but also improved countless lives. My aspiration to contribute to the treatment of neurological diseases and propel the progress of artificial intelligence through discovering the brain aligns with Dr. Hilleman’s spirit of science inquiry - addressing one profound issue has a significant impact across multiple domains. In the face of future challenges, this scientific pursuit stands as evidence of the strength of curiosity and its potential for unimaginable transformations in the world.