(NEW YORK) — Six students from Ukraine were among the finalists at this year’s Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair, the world’s largest global high school competition, run by the Society for Science.
The fair was held in Atlanta’s Georgia World Congress Center from May 7-13. This year’s competition was hybrid due to the ongoing pandemic, allowing the Ukrainian students to compete virtually.
Maya Ajmera, president and CEO of the Society for Science, spoke to ABC News about the courage shown by the Ukrainian students, who were competing while their country was under attack, saying she hoped they would be able to continue with their research and go on to study at the universities of their choice.
“I am really moved by their success and strength under such extraordinarily difficult circumstances,” she said.
Ajmera told ABC News that 1,750 students took part in this year’s competition, with 70% of students participating in person and 30% participating virtually.
Students competed for an array of awards ranging from $500 to $75,000. The finalists were selected from nearly 400 affiliate fairs in 63 countries, regions and territories.
Award winners included two of the six finalists from Ukraine, Sofiia Smovzh and Mykhailo Shynder, both 17 years old.
Smovzh, who is from Kyiv, competed in the fair from Paris. She has been separated from her family for the past several weeks as a result of the war with Russia in her home country.
In an interview with ABC News, Smovzh said she remembers waking up early in the morning from the sound of explosions on Feb. 24 and fleeing her home. After traveling by car for part of the journey and then crossing the Hungarian border alone by foot, she eventually flew to Paris from Budapest on March 6.
Smovzh said her mother and sister made it to a safe place in Spain while other family members remained in Ukraine. She said she misses her family and hopes to reunite with them as soon as possible.
Being able to represent her country on an international platform, in the middle of a war, meant a lot to her, she said. She had been working on her research for close to a year, and after she left home, her project supervisor had continued helping Smovzh from Ukraine while living under occupation.
“It was very important for me to show that Ukraine and Ukrainian people are strong, and they are really good in the field of science, as well,” she said.
Although Smovzh was initially worried about her chances of succeeding in the science fair while competing remotely, she ultimately won $1,000 from the American Chemical Society and $500 in the Chemistry category for her research to improve drugs that are often used for cancer treatment.
“I am really happy about the results and the awards,” she said, adding that she wanted to use a portion of the funds to “make a donation to the Ukrainian army.”
Shynder, who won a $500 award in the Systems Software category at this year’s competition, left Odessa with his parents and their cat on Feb. 26, traveling by car to an area near the Ukraine-Moldova border. The family then drove through several countries, including Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland and eventually made it to Riga, the capital of Latvia, in mid-March.
Shynder said he never imagined he would be away from home for this long.
“I hope this will end soon, but I am afraid that it will not,” he told ABC News, speaking about the ongoing violence in his country.
Shynder credited his computer-science teacher for encouraging him to compete in the science fair. He first started working on his project in the spring of 2021, designing software to help middle school students learn programming in a simplified way.
“Most of my project was done before the war started, and so when I came to Latvia and got to a safe place, I decided I wanted to finish it,” he said.
Shynder’s mother, Yelena Vorontsova, told ABC News she was happy and proud of her son for winning an award.
“He has been interested in computer science for a long time, and all his teachers are proud of him — and of course, we are, too,” she said.
The students from Ukraine were a source of inspiration for the rest of the participants and winners in this year’s competition, including Robert Sansone, 17, of Fort Pierce, Florida, who won the $75,000 top award for his work exploring high-efficiency alternatives to induction motors, with the ultimate goal of moving toward sustainable electric vehicle manufacturing.
“My project was challenging from a technical perspective, but I had lots of support at home and lots of time to really try to work out my project,” he told ABC News.
Sansone said he was impressed by the Ukrainian students in the competition, adding, “With the hostilities that are going on … for them to still manage that and follow their passion with STEM, it’s really inspirational.”
Another prizewinner at this year’s fair, Anika Puri, 17, of Chappaqua, New York, recalled the loud cheering in the room for the Ukrainian students when their names were called during the awards presentation.
“Everybody would cheer so loudly because it’s just so amazing that they were able to continue to pursue their passions in research,” Puri said in an interview with ABC News.
Puri’s project, which centered around wildlife poaching and increasing the accuracy of detecting poachers, led her to win a total of $15,000 in prize money at this year’s fair.
She said that a positive aspect to this year’s hybrid format for the competition is that students who were unable to travel to the U.S. in person, such as the students impacted by the war in Ukraine, were still able to compete.
“I truly admire them because through everything they were going through, through all the hardships they were facing, they were able to persevere and continue to participate,” Puri said.
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