Star pupil

Plano teen wins $70,000 and national acclaim for eye-opening research

Plano teen wins $70K and national acclaim for eye-opening research

Alay Shah, Regeneron talent search winner
Plano teen Alay Shah landed a hefty national award. Photo courtesy of Regeneron

Dallas-Fort Worth has a bona fide math and science superstar in its universe.

Alay Shah, a 17-year-old senior at Plano West Senior High School, earned seventh place and a $70,000 award in this year’s Regeneron Science Talent Search. It’s the country’s oldest science and math competition for high school seniors.

Shah received recognition for development of a diagnostic tool that tracks eye movement to identify neurological disorders that he hopes can become a low-cost alternative to MRIs.

“Alay’s tool tracks pupil movement and gaze with an infrared camera, and uses software he wrote. The data is then analyzed using deep learning algorithms to identify abnormal eye reflexes,” the talent search says in a release. “In clinical tests of patients with Parkinson’s, dementia, multiple sclerosis, and ADHD, Alay found unique eye patterns associated with each condition.”

Shah tells Forbes that when he started the project in ninth grade, he faced criticism about what eye tracking can and cannot do.

“I decided to stick with it because it was something I believed in,” he says. “A lot of times, you’re met with failure, but that one success can completely change everything.”

Shay was one of two Texans to claim a spot in the competition’s top 10. 

Sam Christian, a 17-year-old senior at Austin ISD’s Liberal Arts and Science Academy, won 10th place and a $40,000 award. 

Christian’s winning research examined data from numerous observatories and a NASA telescope to identify the movement of planets in 69 wide-binary star systems, which are twin star systems spaced as much as a light-year apart.

“He showed that the orbits of these exoplanets align to a great extent with the orbit of their binary system. His findings, when applied to a larger sample, could shed additional light on how planets are formed and evolve,” the Regeneron Science Talent Search says. 

Shay and Christian were selected from among 1,760 students who entered, representing 611 high schools in the U.S. and 10 other countries. Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and the Society for Science sponsor the Regeneron Science Talent Search.