August Deer, a senior at Geffen Academy at UCLA, is the only student from the Los Angeles area to make it to the final round of the Regeneron Science Talent Search — one of the oldest math and science competitions in the U.S. 

The 18-year-old was named one of the contest’s top 300 scholars in early January, then one of the 40 finalists two weeks later. Finalists were selected based on how rigorous their chosen research projects were as well as their potential to become scientific leaders. The Regeneron competition, jointly run by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and the Society for Science, started in 1942 as the Westinghouse Science Talent Search.

Deer, whose award-winning research is in machine learning, a subfield of artificial intelligence, described his reaction to learning he reached finalist status as “pure shock.” “I didn’t think my work was even important enough to be in the top 300, so actually being recognized as a finalist was an incredible surprise,” he said. “I’m extremely honored to be among so many other great high schoolers.”

Machine learning focuses on teaching computer programs to analyze data to improve their performance. It’s what helps chatbots understand what a user is asking, for instance, or enables a music streaming service to recommend songs. But there’s a catch. Most of these services collect personal data, raising privacy concerns.

So Deer helped improve a newer form of AI training called federated learning, which allows programs to learn from patterns in datasets without anyone directly seeing the data. That helps keep the data private.

“I fixed a loophole in the federated learning process which allowed someone to reverse engineer the data from the resulting patterns,” he said. “There was already a previously existing fix discovered by my mentors, but it significantly slowed down the training process, so I found a different, much faster and more efficient method.”

Deer is now working on a presentation poster for next month’s final competition and has been meeting the other students via a private Discord server set up just for the finalists. “It’s been really cool seeing everyone else’s projects and knowing that I’ll get to meet them in person soon,” he said.

Getting to the finalist stage is no easy feat. Nearly 2,000 students submit their original research each year and only 40 are chosen. Starting March 9, they will take part in a weeklong competition in Washington, D.C., where more than $1.8 million in awards is up for grabs. Each finalist will receive at least $25,000 to be used toward their college or university education, with the top 10 awards ranging from $40,000 to $250,000.

Succeeding in competitions isn’t entirely new to Deer. Last year, he became one of 30 semifinalists in the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, a global mathematical and scientific video competition where students create and submit short educational films. He demonstrated American physicist John Wheeler’s theory of antimatter, using special effects and 3D animation.

Still, the student said he’s not getting used to doing well in such contests. “For every competition I do well in, there are countless others where I don’t make it past the first round,” he said. “Making it to the semifinals or finals on this caliber of competition will always be a surprise, because I always approach things with cautious optimism.”

Among his mentors, Deer cites Oleg Gleizer, his former math teacher and director of the UCLA Olga Radko Endowed Math Circle, a free Sunday math school run by the UCLA Department of Mathematics, and several University of Southern California researchers who helped guide him in his project. And, he says, Elizabeth Ashforth, director of student research programs at Geffen Academy, championed his work and urged him to enter the Regeneron competition.

Independent research is highly encouraged at the academy, which was launched in 2017 with a curriculum designed to provide students a challenging academic environment while allowing them to discover their strengths and passions. The UCLA-affiliated school serves students grades 6–12, including children of UCLA faculty and students from demographically, socioeconomically and culturally diverse areas from the greater Los Angeles area.

In college, Deer plans to major in mathematics with a possible minor or concentration in film, which he hopes to use to explain math and inspire future mathematicians — perhaps not unlike the host of the 1990s science education TV show “Bill Nye the Science Guy.”

“I’m thankful for Bill Nye, who first inspired me with his TV show and later in person, when I got the opportunity to meet him,” he said.

Looking ahead even further, Deer expects to pursue a career in a field such as science, technology, engineering or math — not surprising given the success he’s found in the recent math and science competitions.

“I love working in STEM, and I can’t imagine my future plans not involving it in some way,” he said.