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A 14-year-old won a prestigious award for his discoveries on 'antiprime' numbers

Akilan Sankaran took home the top award in the 2021 Broadcom MASTERS, a middle school science and engineering competition.
Society for Science
Akilan Sankaran took home the top award in the 2021 Broadcom MASTERS, a middle school science and engineering competition.

Akilan Sankaran, 14, is on his school's varsity track team and plays the piano, the flute and drums — and yet somehow he still found time to devise a computer program that could speed up some of your favorite apps.

That program won Akilan, who's from Albuquerque, N.M., the $25,000 Samueli Foundation Prize, the top award in the Broadcom MASTERS, a highly competitive science and engineering competition for middle school students.

For his winning project, Akilan wrote a computer program that has the potential to make everyday tasks online run more smoothly and efficiently. The program he created can calculate antiprime numbers, which are highly divisible numbers with more than 1,000 digits, and he discovered a new class of functions to analyze these numbers' divisibility.

"We use these numbers all the time in our daily lives without even thinking about it," Akilan said in his project presentation. "Because we have a natural tendency to want to split things into smaller groups. For example, 60 is a highly divisible number, and we use it to divide time, as there are 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in an hour."

In a similar way, highly divisible numbers are useful in computing because they can be used to divide data among computer processors, Akilan explains.

The computer program he created could one day help speed up apps like Shazam and optimize other software as well. (You can read more about his research here.) Akilan is the first student with a math project to take home the competition's top prize in its 11-year history. He reports that his long-term goal is to become an astrophysicist.

Akilan was chosen as the top winner out of over 1,800 students. Finalists submitted projects and also competed in a virtual competition in which they were tested on critical thinking, communication, creativity and collaboration skills.

A big theme among this year's other winners: studying the environment.

Award winners smile during a virtual awards ceremony.
/ Society for Science
Society for Science
Award winners smile during a virtual awards ceremony.

Camellia Sharma, 14, from Henrico, Va., won an award for the project "FishPopAI: Counting Fish Population Using Artificial Intelligence." Camellia built a 3D-printed aerial drone/boat that can land on water and take underwater photos. Software she created can then measure fish populations. A project by Prisha Shroff, 14, of Chandler, Ariz., also involved surveying the natural world: Prisha invented an artificial intelligence-based wildfire-prevention system that identifies fire-risk areas by using satellite and meteorological data.

Josephine E. Schultz, 14, from San Antonio, studied how changes in light patterns can alter the emergence of painted lady butterflies from chrysalises by up to two days. Ryka C. Chopra, 13, from Fremont, Calif., won by geocoding the locations of fast-food restaurants to analyze if they're built near populations of obese people, potentially contributing to obesity cycles.

The students don't just win acclaim and award money for themselves: The schools of each of the 30 finalists will receive $1,000 to boost their STEM initiatives. A full list of the winners can be found here.

Last year's top award went to Ishana Kumar, a 12-year-old from Chappaqua, N.Y., who studied if a person's perception of imaginary colors can be altered, research that could lead to increased understanding of eye diseases.

This story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.

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Nell Clark
Nell Clark is an editor at Morning Edition and a writer for NPR's Live Blog. She pitches stories, edits interviews and reports breaking news. She started in radio at campus station WVFS at Florida State University, then covered climate change and the aftermath of Hurricane Michael for WFSU in Tallahassee, Fla. She joined NPR in 2019 as an intern at Weekend All Things Considered. She is proud to be a member of NPR's Peer-to-Peer Trauma Support Team, a network of staff trained to support colleagues dealing with trauma at work. Before NPR, she worked as a counselor at a sailing summer camp and as a researcher in a deep-sea genetics lab.