Dynamic science duo tops Herricks class of 2017

Dynamic science duo tops Herricks class of 2017
Setu Mehta (left) and Alan Chen are Herricks High School's valedictorian and salutatorian, respectively. (Photo by Noah Manskar)

The friendship between Herricks High School seniors Setu Mehta and Alan Chen goes back to their days at the Denton Avenue School, where they first knew each other as third-graders.

They’ve since become two of Herricks’ science research stars. They were among the school’s five finalists in the national Regeneron Science Talent Search, and earlier this month they placed at the regional Junior Science and Humanities Symposium at York College in Queens.

And in June, they’ll walk across the stage as the top two students in the class of 2017, with Mehta as valedictorian and Chen as salutatorian.

But the two New Hyde Park residents said academics haven’t defined their friendship, which they hope to continue after they leave for college.

“I feel like we just never talked about grades,” Mehta said. “It wasn’t something that was important.”

While they’re both deeply interested in science, Mehta and Chen want to specialize in different fields.

Mehta prefers biology and wants to become an internal physician or a neurologist, she said, “something where I can talk to people”

Mehta’s study of the links between a protein, interferon regulatory factor 5, and the growth of cancer cells made her a semifinalist in the prestigious Regeneron competition, and her presentation of her findings at this month’s symposium won her first place in the biological sciences category.

She’ll compete among the category winners on Feb. 25 for a chance to go to the national symposium in San Diego in April.

Chen, on the other hand, said he prefers physics. He might go into engineering, or do “pure science” research in physics or chemistry.

Chen took third place in the symposium’s Earth and space sciences category for presenting his study of the effects of weathering on the chemical composition of basalt rocks, which also made him a Regeneron semifinalist.

The study used instruments similar to those on the rover that NASA wants to send to Mars in 2020.

A love for learning and a desire to know as much as possible about the world drives both Mehta and Chen, they said.

Their teachers and fellow students in Herricks schools support that love and push them to explore whatever they’re curious about, they said.

“They’re open to you trying new things, and then the students as well — there’s less negative peer pressure into thinking that you’re too nerdy for something,” Chen said.

Mehta and Chen don’t only spend time together in class. They’re both in the Herricks Chamber Orchestra, the school’s Dance Theater Club and Tri-M, the music honor society.

Mehta said she’s seen Chen open up and shown his sense of humor more over the years. But to Chen, Mehta has always been energetic, friendly and easy to talk to.

Chen is still intent on learning as much as he can in his classes before graduating, he said. But in addition to great teachers, friendships like his and Mehta’s have helped shape his experience in Herricks schools, he said.

“We’re all very close and I think that’s helped me a lot,” he said.

After three years focusing intensely on her studies, Mehta said she’s taking more time this year to strengthen those friendships to make sure they last beyond graduation.

“I’ve really found the friendships that matter, as well as continuing my education, obviously,” she said. “But I’m happy that I’ll be able to come out of high school not only knowing a lot more, but just with different friends that I’ve been glad to meet.”

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