How I published research in high school

The story behind my first published work

As my junior year of high school drew to a close in May 2018, a sense of emptiness loomed over the upcoming summer. My Science Fair project experience and an interest in materials science and mechanical engineering compelled me to seek research opportunities at nearby universities. I began scrolling faculty pages and cold emailing galore.

To my dismay, nearly all professors I contacted ghosted me, but one graciously agreed to meet me. Our conversation unveiled two research avenues: chemical combustion graph analysis and machine learning based predictive models for combustion properties. He shared ten papers with me, and I spent the next few weeks heads-deep in reading.

One paper, Planning chemical syntheses with deep neural networks and symbolic AI by Segler et al., particularly caught my eye in the sea of literature. I spent nearly a week trying to understand the paper with no success whatsoever. But the mountains of information I came across while learning piqued my curiosity in machine learning because the technical details aligned with my academic skills and interests. Fun fact: the creator of one site that I printed out Rubik’s cube techniques for back in 2011 happened to teach a popular deep learning course, CS231n - the original implement of a deep learning course I took at UMich, and now works on cool autopilot stuff at Tesla and intelligence at OpenAI.

We decided to demonstrate accurate predictive models for autoignition and flame properties using machine learning methods. Specifically, I used random forests and neural networks on various datasets to predict ignition delay times, laminar flame speeds, octane ratings, and CA50 values in HCCI engines. We believed machine learning models can alleviate long-held limitations from traditional empirical models. For example, the chemical kinetics and resultant intermediaries of most reactions can change drastically based on pressure and temperature.

I filled my summer reading and understanding relevant papers, writing code, running experiments, and presenting to the research group. Don’t worry, I still had fun hanging out with friends and family as a high schooler should!

During the school year, I refined a write-up that was accepted to SAE World Congress Experience 2019 (SAE WCX 2019). From April 9-11th, 2019, I missed my school mornings to attend the conference, network with, and see talks and demos from industry leaders. The experience was surreal. On the day of my talk, I came up sick and was losing my voice. My stomach sank before the presentation began, and my heartbeats permeated across my body. I had lost half of my voice in front of a crowd of around 70 people. I had doubts about my knowledge: what can a high schooler teach to industry veterans or people with graduate degrees in this field?

The talk itself was a blur. Once I began, I boldly shared my presentation that I had spent so long preparing with work that I had known for 11 months (with 3 months of focused work). Afterward, I fielded questions. I don’t remember that part now, but I do recall some questions being quite difficult to answer. I know for sure that I did answer them to the best of my ability. I think the talk was 20 minutes long with 10 minutes of questions, but it may have been longer; I honestly can’t remember now over two years later.

This project was a great first University level research experience for me. I learned that I was capable of picking up new information and generating valuable work even without a traditional background (e.g. degree or course experience). I picked up the skill of reading and understanding academic papers. I experienced an academic conference as a presenter. I overcame many technical problems during my work - even identifying a mistake in the paper for one state-of-the-art empirical model.

This webpage has a picture of me after my talk and this ResearchGate link goes to my conference published paper which currently seems to have 7 citations!

I had a short research stint in university. After significant consideration, I decided to put aside my research aspirations for other professional interests. The incentive structure and pace of a business align better with my disposition. I still skim a research paper here and there 😊.