Local Teen Scientists Compete to Save the World at Dr. Nelson Ying Science Competition

A group photo of 5 teen science competition finalists holding trophies with competition judges and OSC staff


From fighting climate change to saving bees, local teen scientists are changing the world!

To compete in the prestigious Dr. Naleson Ying Science Competition, each entrant must be a Central Florida high school student and pursue a research project that has the ultimate goal of benefiting humanity. This year, each finalist’s research had an environmental focus, from cleaning up microplastics in the oceans to monitoring methane emissions to combat climate change to protecting and sustaining bee populations. In addition to the grand prize winner, each finalist received $500 to continue their research.

Ella Pilacek, a sophomore at Oviedo High School in Seminole County, has won the top prize in the prestigious Dr. Nelson Ying Science Competition at Orlando Science Center. Her research project, which was focused on proving that bees could be encouraged by Pavlovian conditioning to pollinate specific plant species, won a scholarship of $5,000, a $1,000 award for her science teacher, and an additional $1,000 for their school.

Pilacek was named winner during an awards ceremony at the Historic Dubsdread Ballroom on Sunday, April 24, following a day of presenting her findings to judges on Saturday, April 23, at the Science Center. This year, the competition and the awards ceremony were held in person for the first time since 2019. The previous two years, they had been conducted virtually due to the pandemic. Since 1999, Dr. Nelson Ying — local scientist, entrepreneur and philanthropist — has partnered with Orlando Science Center to celebrate outstanding student scientists through his creation and sponsorship of this competition.

Ella Pilacek - OSC Ying Competition Winner holding trophy

Meet the Finalists!

Kyra Henriques, Oviedo High School, Seminole County

Microplastics have potential to harm health and her research could lead to ways to easily extract them from aquatic environments to combat pollution. The chemical properties of ferrofluids contribute to their binding to microplastics, which could facilitate magnetic extraction of microplastics.

Kyra Henriques - OSC Ying Competition Finalist holding trophy

Lavanya Natarajan, Viera High School, Brevard County

Landfills emit methane during waste decomposition, but large portions of this potent gas escapes undetected, fueling global warming. She developed a system to monitor methane emissions in real-time, which could help reduce greenhouse gases by 50% by 2030.

Lavanya Natarjan - OSC Ying Competition Finalist holding trophy on stage

Varun Madan, Lake Highland Preparatory School, Orange County

Honeybees are extremely important to our natural ecosystem due to their role as an essential species of pollinator. This project involved creating a probiotic treatment mixture made from lactic acid bacteria and a type of machine learning technology to help honeybees fight off a harmful gut parasite.

Varun Madan - OSC Ying Competition Finalist holding trophy

Atreya Manaswi, Orlando Science High School, Orange County

Hive beetles are an invasive pest and a danger to bees, a very important pollinator species. This project built on his previous research that suggested beer was extremely effective for attracting and trapping small hive beetles. He investigated the attractiveness of a volatile oil blend that was fabricated by isolating key odor compounds found in beer. Trapping small hive beetles can ensure protection and survival of beehives.

Atreya Manaswi - OSC Ying Competition Finalist holding trophy

Pilacek’s winning research supported using Pavlovian conditioning with bees so they would follow specific scents to plants that aren’t their usual food sources. The next step in her research will be to test it in the field, using these scents to attract bees to endangered plant species, which would encourage pollination and combat habitat fragmentation. Previous winners of the Dr. Nelson Ying Science Competition have gone on to continue their research at top universities, compete in national science competitions and ultimately pursue exciting STEM careers, including positions at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Ying is a longtime supporter of Orlando Science Center. After sponsoring numerous exhibits and serving on the Science Center’s board of trustees, he decided to invest in the long-term impact of our mission to inspire science learning for life. In 1999, he and volunteer Fred Curtis launched the Dr. Ying Science Competition with Orlando Science Center to celebrate and inspire exemplary science students to use their expertise to address real-world problems. Ying’s son, Nelson Jr., now oversees the competition with Curtis in collaboration with Orlando Science Center. They continue to engage and mentor young people to leverage their passion for science to make the world a better place.