On Jan. 10, the Regeneron Science Talent Search 2023 (Regeneron STS) — one of the US’s most prestigious STEM competitions for high school seniors — selected senior Rodrigo Cantu Valadez as one of their 300 scholars. Additionally, the competition selected Saratoga High School seniors Lisa Fung and Bryant Liu. The Regeneron STS chose Cantu Valadez out of a pool of 1,949 applicants from 48 states and 627 high schools. The scholarship awards him $2,000 in cash, $2,000 to Los Gatos High School, and the opportunity to become a Top 40 finalist on Jan. 24.
Started in 1942 by the Society for Science, the Regeneron STS is the oldest science and math competition for high school seniors, attracting around 2,000 applicants yearly. The program awards a total of 3.1 million dollars to students annually and aims to inspire young gifted scientists. Each student submits original research about critical issues in the world. Cantu Valadez focused on clean energy by seeking to make solar cells, which convert energy from the sun, more efficient at higher temperatures.
Inspired by MIT researchers, Cantu Valadez initiated his project, titled Investigating the Effects of Carbon-Based RF Aerogels on DSSCs With the Purpose of Increasing Cell Efficiency, in his Advanced Science Research class as a sophomore. After narrowing down the topic in the summer of 2021, Cantu Valadez started conducting tests in December 2021. Throughout the difficulties of the process, he said, “It was mostly just a trial and error kind of thing. Trying something, seeing if it worked — most of the time, it didn’t — and then just doing it again and again.” Cantu Valadez sought to apply his research environmentally, finding “something that would be useful and actually relevant.”
Due to the January storm, Cantu Valadez was unaware of his selection. He stated, “I didn’t have any power in my house: no WiFi, no referral data, nothing. So I was just at home minding my own business, playing some board games. Because what am I supposed to do? And in like a five-minute window, we got some cellular data back. And so I received a couple of text messages just saying congratulations. And obviously, I was really confused because I had no idea what I was being congratulated on.” When asked about his winning, he commented, “I still am a little bit shocked. I guess I didn’t quite expect it. Obviously, I’m very happy about it.”
In college, Cantu Valadez plans to continue conducting research as a physics major. “Physics just encompasses everything,” Cantu Valadez explained. “If you want to go down to the lowest level, you’re gonna have quantum physics or some sort of particle physics, and if you want to go to the highest level, you have some sort of astrophysics or cosmology or something. So it’s just…it’s everywhere, right? If you want to learn everything, that’s, I guess, where you go.” In the future, he hopes to explore the fundamental aspects of his project and not only understand what worked but why it worked.