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Kyra McCreery: A scientist in the making

NSHS senior is named a Regeneron finalist

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Kyra McCreery is a finalist in the Regeneron Science Talent Search. Educators who have worked with her over the past few years say they aren’t surprised, and describe McCreery as brilliant. While speaking with the North Shore High School senior about her passion for environmental science, it quickly becomes apparent that they aren’t exaggerating.

McCreery’s intellectual fortitude and her dedication to her work as a young scientist helped her become a finalist, her teachers say. Her project, on the declining speeds of hurricanes as they have made landfall over the past century and a half, and the impact that can have on the environment, was impressive enough for the contest’s judges to name her one of only 40 students nationwide who will present their work in Washington, D.C., March 5-11. Roughly $1.8 million in prizes will be awarded, with a top prize of $250,000.

“I was really shocked at first,” McCreery, 17, said. “I     . . . was really not expecting that result, but obviously I was so thrilled when I found out. I was just incredibly excited.”

Science, she said, has been a passion of hers for as long as she can remember. Her interest in environmental science began when she helped create a rain garden in her fifth-grade enrichment class at Sea Cliff Elementary School. As she got older, she realized that the subject had a great deal of societal importance, she said, and she gravitated toward research in the field.

By the time McCreery was a high school sophomore, she said, she was ready to take serious steps toward becoming an environmental scientist. With the help of a former NSHS student, she reached out to Dr. Upmanu Lall, chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering at Columbia University, who agreed to mentor her.

“She’s an amazingly mature person and scientist for that age,” Lall said, noting that McCreery can understand work he assigns to his graduate students.

When she decided to enter the Regeneron contest, Lall agreed to help. They worked on her project from spring to fall last year. Using a National Hurricane Center dataset of 1,857 tropical storms in North America and the Caribbean from 1851 to 2016, she tracked the landfall speeds of hurricanes.

After compiling her data, she conducted a linear regression analysis — a process meant to model the relationship between dependent and independent variables — and found that the distance traveled by hurricanes in the Atlantic over a 24-hour period decreased by .14 kilometers each year, or 23.1 kilometers over 165 years.

With hurricanes lingering for longer periods, the ensuing precipitation can cause increased damage to infrastructure and the environment. McCreery and Lall said the research had never been done before, and that her work could have far-reaching implications.

McCreery said that her most dramatic discovery came while she was doing a spatial analysis of the frequency and slowdown of storms from 1950 to 2016. She discovered that there was a sharper increase in the numbers over that period than during the previous 100 years. While it has not been proven, the findings could be a result of climate change, which is her working hypothesis.

“What she’s done is a serious academic contribution,” Lall said. “It’s not just a high school kid’s work.”

“I think it’s important to substantiate your understanding of hurricanes with statistics and real science,” McCreery said. “Being aware of the facts [and] being aware of the findings of these historical analyses informs public-policy decisions that can impact the average person, and hopefully will be able to improve weather forecasts and save more lives in the future.”

Her work was done as part of her science research class at North Shore High School, guided by teacher Dr. Molly Mordechai, who said she was speechless when she heard about McCreery’s recognition as a Regeneron finalist. Mordechai said her work could affect the way people view hurricanes, adding that she deserved a spot in the finals.

“The fact that she made it this far is such an accomplishment,” Mordechai said. “Of course, it would be nice to see her in that top 10, but this is such amazing recognition of the hard work she’s done that no matter what happens, she should hold her head up high that she’s made it this far. She’s an incredible student.”

North Shore Superintendent Dr. Peter Giarrizzo said that McCreery’s experience in Washington could be life-changing. She will be surrounded by world-renowned scientists who could present her with many new opportunities.

“To be one of 40 students whose research is that impactful and powerful is almost overwhelming,” Giarrizzo said. “The work that she’s doing around climate change is potentially so impactful and timely for what it is we’re facing right now.”

“She’s a really special kid,” he added. “She’s obviously very smart, really well connected to the entire program, such a nice person, and as far as I’m concerned, it couldn’t have happened to anyone better.”

Kyra’s mother, Peggy, said she could not be prouder of her. Peggy was impressed by Kyra’s initiative to go beyond her academic requirements to do something to benefit those around her. She also said that she has always known her daughter was destined for great things, and that her status as a Regeneron finalist shows that her hard work has come to fruition.

“I hope she represents all the kids, all the mentors and all the teachers that are, day in and day out, helping to promote science,” Peggy said. “To me, it’s just basic fact-based truth-seeking that is important and needs to be promoted.”

Kyra has been accepted by Yale University, and said she hoped to study physical science in some capacity in college. She is unsure of what field she will pursue, she said, but environmental science will almost certainly be her focus, because it is more important now than ever.

“I really just hope that people pay attention to this threat that really could have some dire consequences for our planet,” McCreery said. “Obviously, climate change is in the news a lot, but I think it’s so important that people pay attention to this kind of research. I hope [this project] will garner a little bit of attention for the field, and hopefully for the element of the science behind it too.”

Mordechai, who has taught McCreery throughout her high school years, said she has no doubt her student will have a bright future. “Kyra doesn’t stop here,” Mordechai said. “She’s going to be a mover and a shaker in the future. She’s going to accomplish amazing things.”