Los Altos twins win grand prize at Synopsys science fair

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Courtesy of Ruma Sanyal
Twins Josh and Anushka Sanyal were grand-prize winners at the Synopsys Science & Technology Championship.

Anushka and Josh Sanyal have a lot more in common than just being twins. Both Los Altos residents are extremely passionate about STEM, have had their research published and became grand-prize winners at the Synopsys Science & Technology Championship.

Anushka and Josh, juniors at Homestead High School, placed the highest in their categories – Biological Science and Engineering and Physical Science and Engineering, respectively – at the Santa Clara Valley Science & Engineering Fair Association event, presented virtually March 11 and 12.

“In the end, kids work so hard. … They really pour their heart and souls into these projects,” said Ruma Sanyal, the twins’ mother. “I’m very proud of them in terms of the work itself. They have done it completely by themselves.”

This made the siblings eligible for the annual Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair, which offers up to $5 million in prizes, but that event has been canceled this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Josh discovered his passion for mathematics as early as kindergarten and has been interested in pursuing a STEM-related career ever since. According to Anushka, her brother was known as a “big math hotshot” and as a result people began referring to her only as “Josh’s sister.” Determined to make a name for herself, she quickly began searching for her passion, only to discover it was in the same field. In middle school, the twins joined Science Olympiad, a team competition in which students participate in specific science discipline events. It was there that Anushka first realized she loved biology.

“Growing up with my twin brother, he was always more passionate about STEM,” Anushka said. “Watching him allowed me to figure out that I was also passionate about it, but in a different way.”

‘A twin thing’

In middle school, both the Sanyals became interested in pursuing independent research. Anushka, inspired by her volunteer work at a senior home, began looking into neurodegenerative diseases. Working in the memory unit exposed her to the effects of such diseases on people’s lives, and she became determined to find out more. Her project for the symposium ultimately focused on examining how cells can armor themselves against these illnesses as potential therapeutic applications for diseases such as ALS and Alzheimer’s.

“Pushing myself to understand the (scientific jargon) and slowly pursue my ideas was just an amazing process for me,” Anushka said. “Then having that be validated through events like the science fair … was just an amazing experience.”

Similarly, Josh’s project was inspired by his experience. In middle school, he began taking online courses and quickly became interested in machine learning. From there, he researched natural language processing and ultimately created a process that feeds medical notes, records and data into a model to predict breast cancer in patients one year in advance.

“It’s something that personally affects my family,” Josh said. “The project has huge implications (for other diseases) in trying to improve treatment and survival, which is often extremely low for people who are detected later on.”

Josh and Anushka worked on their projects in separate labs at Stanford University and agreed it was a vital component of their learning experiences. Additionally, both pointed to their mother as their biggest supporter, with assistance ranging from giving them rides to the lab several times a week to helping them with difficult problems.

“I’m really humbled by it. … I tried to support them pretty much unconditionally,” Ruma said.

Anushka and Josh hope to pursue STEM in the future, including additional research, as they explore the real-world implications of their findings. Additionally, both are grateful for the support of the other in achieving their goal.

“It was so nice to have this really close friend that I could talk to. … It’s a twin thing!” Anushka said. “I’m just grateful to have him in my life as someone I can rely on that way without any fear of judgment.”

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