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This Westchester Middle Schooler Won a $25,000 Science Fair Prize

Photos courtesy of the Society for Science & the Public

Chappaqua student Ishana Kumar’s study of the mechanisms for perception of visual illusions landed her the top spot in the 2020 Samueli Foundation Prize.

This October, Broadcom Foundation and the Society for Science & the Public — which you might recognize from its annual Regeneron Science Talent Search, which frequently boasts Westchester talent among its finalists — announced the winners of the 2020 Samueli Foundation Prize and, sure enough, one Westchester student has claimed the title for herself.

When you think of 12-year-old science fair participants, you might picture projects like baking soda volcanos and the occasional electromagnet. Ishana Kumar of Chappaqua’s Robert E. Bell Middle School’s project was a bit more complex.

“I have always been fascinated about how our complicated brains can be tricked by illusions,” Kumar says. Consequently, her project, Color Is in the Eye of the Beholder: The Role of Retinal Fatigue on Imaginary Fechner Colors, uses a common optical illusion to study the mechanism by which the eye and brain perceive color from moving black-and-white stimuli, and how to specifically trick the brain into perceiving specific colors (that — reminder — don’t actually exist). How cool is that?

“I find it fascinating that illusions, as simple as spinning black and white patterns, can trick our complicated brain,” she says. “The fact that we know that something isn’t real, yet we still perceive it, is really intriguing.”

“The entire Broadcom family congratulates Ishana and the entire class of the 2020 Broadcom MASTERS,” says Broadcom Foundation President Paula Golden. “To compete and bond as a dynamic cohort has been made more challenging in the face of a worldwide pandemic, yet they found a way to come together in competition and friendship. They will forever be remembered for their enthusiasm and perseverance as young scientists and engineers.”

“From climate change to gerrymandering, it is so inspiring to see young people identify a large problem in our world and then zero in on a way that they can make a difference using their STEM knowledge. I have great expectations for all of this year’s Broadcom MASTERS,” says Science News Publisher Maya Ajmera, President & CEO of the Society for Science & the Public.

Kumar locked down the top prize in the competition of $25,000, but don’t think the other 29 finalists went home with just a pat on the shoulder and a year’s supply of Rice-A-Roni; four other finalists each received $10,000 STEM awards, and two more receiving their shares of $6,000 to go towards science-related summer camps of their choice, while all 30 of the finalists received a $500 cash award and $1,000 for their science teachers to use for STEM-related activities.

These children’s accomplishments become even more apparent when viewed in their full scope. Kumar and her fellow finalists represented the top 30 finalists from a pool representing nearly 3,500 sixth through eighth grade students from 42 different U.S. states and Puerto Rico.