Having already achieved too many accolades to fit on one page, International Academy of Bloomfield Hills senior Vivian Yee has a recent accomplishment that may take the cake. After being named a 2021 finalist out of 40 (from 1,760 entrants) for the Regeneron Science Talent Search 2021, she came in ninth place, which includes a $50,000 award.
Her topic could not be timelier. Yee researched disparities in COVID-19 cases and related deaths in more vulnerable communities where she found they experienced higher rates of COVID-19 transmission and death. Her study suggests that government-led initiatives helped to reduce these outcomes over time. Her findings are detailed in a congressional memorandum that has been accepted by the official Coronavirus Task Force to inform future relief legislation.
“Growing up, I had a vision to be a doctor,” said Yee, who did Science Olympiad in fourth grade and science research in ninth grade, but after participating in forensics and Model UN debates, “I saw the philanthropic side that I wanted to pursue further.
“I was really motivated by things I had seen in the news early in the pandemic. Looking at those case counts, it was very concerning to see how health disparities impact socially vulnerable households. Socially vulnerable communities are being impacted disproportionately with the number of COVID cases and deaths in Detroit, New York and beyond.”
Yee, who lives in Beverly Hills, has been especially eager to see how science guides our decisions during the pandemic. “I have a really big passion for public policy and science,” she said. “Knowledge gained through scientific research addresses greater issues in society.”
The pandemic would end her lab work as a high school researcher at the University of Michigan. “I had to find new ways to do research from home. Researching remotely pushed me outside of my comfort zone and gave me the opportunity to look into things I’m passionate about.”
One of those passions is Helping Hands: A Students for Students Movement Inc., a non-profit organization Yee co-founded that works to minimize educational disparities for underprivileged students. “It ties into my motivation,” she said. “Talking with administrators and staff, I saw that many of the students were facing difficulties transitioning to online schooling during the pandemic, like not having computers.” Part of their mission includes fundraising efforts for technology and supplies.
Yee appreciates the academics, classroom experience and the opportunities at the International Academy. “The student body is truly enriching, and not in a competitive way,” she said. “We collaborate on initiatives and that is incredibly motivating. The teachers are so supportive of our academic endeavors and they want to provide an enriching experience.”
One day, Yee hopes to be part of an organization like the WHO or the CDC. Her first stop will be Harvard University, where she will be a freshman this fall.
She would like to create public policy based in science and data, and to show the need for greater community outreach to promote health in underserved communities where there is a higher ratio of COVID transmission and the need to vaccinate and promote health literacy.
In the meantime, she recognizes the lessons of the past year. “The pandemic taught us the importance of being adaptable and a lot of people learned the importance of community,” Yee said. “We have to work together to help prevent the spread of the disease that has touched so many lives. It is an issue of public health when it impacts every single person and change is necessary to work toward achieving greater health equity.”
Story: Jeanine Matlow
Photo: Laurie Tennent