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News from 2023-2024

Posted: May 17, 2024

La Cueva Senior Named One of Nation's Most Promising Teen Scientists

Aditya Koushik has been using AI to identify naturally occurring cancer treatments.

Aditya Koushik

Aditya Koushik

Aditya Koushik hasn’t even graduated from high school yet, but the young scientist is already on the front lines in the fight to cure cancer.

Koushik, a senior at La Cueva High School, has been harnessing the power of artificial intelligence to identify naturally occurring cancer treatments. That cutting-edge research earned him a $2,000 scholarship and a Scholar designation in the Regeneron Science Talent Search 2024 competition.

In all, 2,162 students from 712 high schools across 46 states, Puerto Rico, and 10 other countries entered what is considered the nation’s oldest and most prestigious high school STEM competition. Koushik, who will be attending Stanford University in the fall, was among the 300 selected as Regeneron Science Talent Scholars.

“This project started when I learned about a promising new cancer therapeutic – anticancer peptides – small protein sequences that can selectively target and kill cancer cells,” Koushik said.

Intrigued, he set out to develop a deep neural network – a type of AI model – called ACPLearn to discover these anticancer peptides in nature.

“I trained the model to recognize physicochemical patterns in ACP sequences, and ultimately, ACPLearn was able to identify these patterns with a 95% accuracy, outperforming existing state-of-the-art models,” Koushik said.

Using the model, Koushik discovered six new anticancer peptides in a species of oceanic algae called Phaeocystis antarctica.

“This was the most exciting part of my research, because, as far as I know, my model was the first to discover this algae’s potential anticancer properties,” he added.

Koushik then worked with Dr. Curt Hines at the University of New Mexico to test some of the peptides ACPLearn identified against MCF-7 breast cancer cells.

“We found that these peptides were able to successfully kill breast cancer cells, validating my model,” he said. “My future plans for this project include publishing this work, testing some of the peptides against other types of cancer cells, discovering even more peptides with ACPLearn, and further exploring the potential anticancer properties of P. Antarctica.”

Solid foundation

Koushik said he’s drawn to computer science and biology. He plans to major in biomedical engineering at Stanford, but he’s still deciding between a career as a biomedical engineer and medicine.

He said the rigorous Advanced Placement science classes he took over the last four years at La Cueva have given him a solid foundation.

“I first became interested in biology taking a class in my freshman year,” he said. “Since then, the AP science classes I’ve taken at La Cueva – AP Physics 1 and 2, and AP Computer Science Principles, AP CSA, and AP Biology – sparked my interest in innovation and research.

“Taking AP biology was especially valuable towards my project, with the relevant course material, Dr. (Colleen) Fordyce’s support, and the hands-on lab research we did in the class,” he added. “I am also thankful for my math teacher, Ms. (Kimberly) Conell, for her support of my endeavors throughout high school.”

‘Excited and shocked’

Beyond earning him a $2,000 scholarship, Koushik’s success in the Regeneron Science Talent Search competition means a $2,000 donation to La Cueva’s science department. The competition is owned and produced by the Society for Science.

“The experience has shown me how rewarding it can be to do a research project and inspired me to continue independent research in college,” Koushik said.

Koushik said he didn’t have huge expectations when he entered the competition because he knew that only 300 students would be chosen from more than 2,000 competitors. He said he was both excited and shocked earlier this year when he read the email notifying him that he made the cut.

“Becoming a scholar opened my eyes to my project’s potential to make a meaningful difference in cancer research and my potential as a scientist in the future,” he said.