A Wellington School student's success in unraveling a DNA knot-theory problem earned her a spot as one of 40 high school students nationwide -- and the only one from Ohio -- named finalists in the 2018 Regeneron Science Talent Search.
The Society for Science & the Public and Regeneron, a biotechnology company headquartered in Tarrytown, New York, culled the 40 from a list of 300 students who were named scholars in January.
As a finalist, 17-year-old Grace Tian of Hilliard traveled to Washington, D.C., in March for final judging and to display her work to the public. Finalists also were awarded scholarships ranging from $25,000 to $250,000.
Tian brought home $27,000 in scholarships.
She began research for her project, "Linear Upper Bound on the Ribbonlength of Torus Knots and Twist Knots," last summer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
DNA -- deoxyribonucleic acid -- is a self-replicating material present in nearly all living organisms as the main constituent of chromosomes. It is the carrier of genetic information. DNA molecules are organized in a double helix structure; according to the University of Tennessee Knoxville's Institute for Environmental Modeling, the two strands twist among each other millions of times and, as the knotted theory goes, can become knotted, making replication and transcription -- or genetic copies -- difficult.
The body's enzymes try to break through this knotting, otherwise known as coiling, in an effort to rearrange the DNA in a tidier fashion.
Theorists posit that mathematical estimates can help untie this biological puzzle.
Tian's mathematical research project unraveled a knot-theory problem and earned her the Regeneron invitation.
In her study, she worked with idealized mathematical ribbons to provide a worst-case-scenario estimate for the minimal ratio of the length to width of a knotted ribbon in terms of how many times the ribbon crosses over itself.
Her work proved a general theorem about knots, determining how knotted DNA is affected by the size of its strands.
"I'm overestimating the minimum length needed to create a knotted ribbon with unit width," Tian said. "My research has applications to DNA where the two boundaries of a knotted ribbon correspond to the two edges of a DNA ladder."
Tian said she became interested in math in middle school, which eventually led to her knotted-DNA studies at MIT and Ohio State University, the latter of which was conducted under OSU math professor Sergei Chmutov.
She said she was "pretty excited" to be invited to the Regeneron.
"It's a pretty esteemed competition," she said. "You get to meet a ton of different scientists and a ton of brilliant people.
"It's also very fancy. In the awards ceremony, guys wear tuxedos and the girls wear gowns."
Entering the final months of her senior year, Tian said she is looking forward to college, where she'll study math with an eye on possibly becoming a professor.
Harvard, Princeton and Ohio State are among the schools she's considering.
Tian said her experience in the Regeneron competition proved inspiring, as organizers challenged the student finalists to be their generation's next leaders.
She said she'll use the experience to build on her interests in math as she studies in college.
"It will definitely be something mathematical -- like math, statistics or computer science," she said. "For a career, it'll be something in academia, like maybe be a professor or work in the industry, maybe as a data scientist."