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For This Young Scientist, Running is Part of the Scientific Process

Lillian Kay Petersen says running played a role in winning a prestigious science award this summer.

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Los Alamos, New Mexico, may be remembered most for its ties to the Manhattan Project, which brought us the atomic bomb, but it has continued to be a science town to this day. The Los Alamos National Laboratory is the largest employer in the area, meaning this town of fewer than 20,000 people has one of the highest per capita rates of Ph.Ds in the country.

But ask anyone from the Los Alamos run community, and they’ll tell you they’re a city of runners and scientists. 

Seventeen-year-old Los Alamos native Lillian Kay Petersen is no exception, though she is exceptional. Petersen, who’s been a cross-country and track runner since she was in seventh grade, recently won the 2020 Regeneron Science Talent Search, the nation’s oldest STEM competition for high school seniors. 

She started researching her project just after her freshman year of high school and published it in the peer-reviewed journal Remote Sensing in the fall of her junior year. Though she had to quit track after her freshman year (science fair season got in the way) running and science have always been intertwined for Petersen. She continued cross-country all of high school and has kept honing her skills as an endurance runner. That training helped her get through the tricky problems in her research.

“Whenever I’m feeling stuck on a problem or I’ve just worked too much in a day and my brain is foggy and I can no longer think, I know I just have to go out and go on a run,” she says. And science backs up this strategy, as running has been found to improve memory, attention span, brain health, and motor skills.

Petersen wins the Regeneron Science Talent Search in a ceremony conducted via Zoom. Photo: Courtesy Regeneron Science Talent Search

Petersen’s Award-Winning Project

The project that won Petersen the $250,000 grand prize was about using satellite imagery to predict crop-yields in African countries, three to four months before the harvest. “Predicting crop yields in Africa is extremely important because it allows us to monitor crop health in real time and gives aid organizations more lead time to respond to potential food crises,” she says. 

She was inspired after reading about a drought in Ethiopia in 2015 and 2016 that put 18 million people at risk of starvation. “Aid organizations were unprepared for this food crisis,” she says, “so it took them many months to respond.” Her solution, using free satellite imagery, would allow aid organizations to respond before the crises happens. And, unintended in her initial study, the ability to monitor it remotely could prove to be beneficial in times when being in person is difficult or impossible, like during a global pandemic.

Petersen wants to use her math and science-oriented mind to save lives. At Harvard University, where she is just starting out, she is studying applied math with an application in molecular biology. “I think that molecular biology has the largest potential for life-saving drugs and therapies,” she says. The Regeneron prize money, for her, is an opportunity to be flexible about her research pursuits and not necessarily worry about finances. It’s also a surprise: “I always did the research because I enjoyed it, not because I was striving toward a particular award or anything like that.”

Petersen running the 15 mile Jemez Mountain Trail Run on her own after the event was canceled. Photo: Courtesy Lillian Kay Petersen

Running and Science Require the Same Mindset

Petersen says that in both science and running, she loves to push bigger and bigger goals, something she came by naturally: Petersen’s father is also a runner and a scientist. “I think our mindsets are very similar,” she says, as her dad also uses running to work through science problems. Running together is one of her favorite things. “We use those run times to discuss a lot of scientific theories or whatever I’m working on if I’m having trouble.” 

Growing up in Los Alamos allowed Petersen to fall in love with trail running, and most of her life, her training has been at 8,000 to 10,000 foot elevation almost exclusively. This summer, she chose to run the course of what would have been the Jemez Mountain Trail Run 15-mile race on her own. (The race was canceled due to COVID-19.) The course had a nearly 2,000 foot elevation gain; she completed it in about two and a half hours.  

Endurance running has prepared her for the hard work involved in research and vice versa. “With research, it’s never easy. It requires continuous work for months or years, and you have to be willing to work through all of the hard moments and bugs and difficulties to reach your goal,” she says. That’s a mindset that runners know all too well. “You have good and bad days, but it’s always worth it because every day you train you know you’re building on your strength and fitness and getting closer to your goals.” 

In the middle of a pandemic and while starting a rigorous course load for college, it’s hard for Petersen to pinpoint her next running goal, but she knows she’ll keep running—no matter how busy the schedule gets. Right now, she’s focused on exploring her new city of Boston the best way she knows how: on a run.