2020 Dallas Regional Science and Engineering Fair (DRSEF) held in Fair Park. From left to right: Rachel Mammen, John Rho, Alay Shah, Kevin Meng, Derek Qin. Courtesy of Rachel Mammen.

Most high school students don’t conduct scientific research. Even fewer mentor other high school students and teach them the ways of science research.

That’s exactly what the students at Association for Young Scientists & Innovators (AYSI) are doing. 

AYSI is a student-run 501(c)(3) nonprofit that promotes scientific research by mentoring high school students in STEM research competitions. All of the organization’s founders are current or former Plano ISD students. 

AYSI leaders Rachel Mammen and Alay Shah say the organization tries to direct student focus on research that “innovates for impact” that can tangibly solve real-world problems. This ranges from drought prevention to separating audio streams in hearing aids.

One of AYSI’s co-presidents, Plano West Senior High School senior John Rho, created an algorithm for hearing aid devices to help solve what researchers call the “cocktail party problem,” which happens when a hearing-aid user may not be able to differentiate between certain audio streams with similar pitches. The algorithm helps hearing aid devices separate audio streams so users can understand where certain sounds are coming from and who is speaking to them.

Shah and Mammen said that projects don’t need to be searching for the cure to cancer or other hot topics, like cardiology. All ideas big and small are welcome.

“No subject is frowned upon. Any interest that someone has should be pursued,” Mammen said. “Even if it’s just a big deal to you, if you can really run with that idea, it will definitely be a big deal to everyone else,” Mammen said.

Shah said the key to succeeding in research and enjoying the process is picking a topic you’re passionate about.

“You can take a really small idea and present it in a really big way,” Shah said.

Shah’s research has focused on an eye-tracking device he created with an infrared sensor. He’s worked with human subjects (with informed consent) and local medical offices to track patterns in eye movement that could potentially identify Parkinson’s and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in patients.

Both mentors and mentees in AYSI have won accolades that are considered impressive and prestigious in the scientific community.  

One of AYSI’s students, Krithik Ramesh, won the top prize at the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) last year. The $75,000 award is given out only once per year.

Ramesh isn’t the only AYSI affiliate to be awarded this prestigious honor. AYSI advisory board members Kevin Meng and Andi Spiride have also won the Grand Prize at ISEF and AYSI officers Rachel Mammen, Alay Shah, and Noah Mathai have all been finalists in the ISEF competition — and this is just one of the many competitions that mentors and mentees alike participate in.

Many of AYSI’s mentors are now undergraduates at top-tier colleges like MIT, Harvard and Stanford and have published their work and worked in labs at these universities. 

While Shah and Mammen said that accolades and watching one’s project come to life are enjoyable aspects of the research process, adding lines to their resume for college applications is not what motivates the AYSI officers. Shah said that focusing on science fair as a ticket to an elite university is missing the point. 

“Our goal is not to use science fair as a tool to (get into colleges) but actually shape your passion around science fair and research. We help people find their niche category,” Shah said.

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