2021 prompts

These were the 2021 prompts for the YIWC. You can check out the winning articles here.


COVID-19 vaccine technology is a hallmark of 21st century science – not just for its efficiency in preventing disease, but for the rapid pace of discovery that led to its mass distribution. Rooted in synthetic biology, it relies on taking advantage of synthetically engineered molecules, such as DNA or RNA, to educate our immune system, as opposed to traditional vaccines, which rely on a weakened or dead virus sample. However, many are worried about the potential biosecurity and biosafety risks that may come with vaccine technology, fears that have existed since the development of the polio vaccine. 

Should we use synthetic biology in the development of vaccines and future medical research?

You may consider these guiding questions:

  • What are the benefits and drawbacks of using molecular or synthetic biology vaccines compared to traditional vaccines? 
  • Is vaccine technology unsafe? What biosafety risks may come with vaccine technology, and how do they relate to the COVID-19 vaccines?
  • What biosecurity risks should be considered during the research, development, and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine? 
  • How does the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine impact different populations, and does it deepen any existing disparities on the socioeconomic level? 

Environmental Science

In today’s society, wearing masks has become the new normal. However, with each disposable mask and takeout box we throw out, we risk further damaging our environment through plastic pollution. While some may opt for reusable alternatives, due to the pandemic, there is a fear of contamination and for the spread of disease. In many ways, people are unsure how to navigate between two global crises – climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

How do we balance plastic use with our need to preserve the environment during a global crisis?

You may consider these guiding questions:

  • What are the benefits and drawbacks of using plastic in our society?
  • Are there potential alternatives to plastic that our society can implement that maintain human health and the environment?
  • How has the pandemic impacted our perception of plastic use? 
  • To what extent are humans dependent on plastic?
  • How does America compare to other countries in terms of plastic waste generated and what constructs do they have in place?


Last March, New York schools made the unprecedented jump from in-person education to virtual classrooms. Students began learning through video calls and a number of online platforms. While this system works better for students in how it promotes learning at their own pace, it denies their access to necessary social resources. With this sudden shift away from the classroom in many parts of the globe, some are wondering whether the adoption of online learning will continue to persist post-pandemic, and how such a shift would impact the worldwide education market.

Should we integrate any aspects of virtual learning with the classroom setting after the pandemic, and to what extent?

You may consider these guiding questions:

  • Is virtual learning more effective than in-person learning? What are its benefits, and what does it mean for students to learn at their own pace?
  • How does virtual learning impact access to social resources, such as social workers and reduced cost lunch programs? 
  • How has virtual learning magnified the gaps in access to school resources and technology that fall along racial and socioeconomic lines?
  • How has virtual learning impacted students’ mental/social well-being and development?

Space Research

Humans have landed rovers on Mars, procured samples from distant asteroids, and may eventually begin colonizing other planets. With these efforts, we have made numerous discoveries about the history of life and our solar system. Like most research endeavors, this comes with a cost — for NASA, of over $20 billion each year — but unlike other fields of research, its benefits seem less relevant to everyday life, especially during a time of worldwide environmental crisis. 

Should we further pursue space research and exploration in today’s world? 

You may consider these guiding questions:

  • What are the costs of space research and exploration? Is the risk solely financial, or are there other risks to space travel? 
  • What do we learn from space research? How does it benefit the average earthbound human? 
  • Who should pay for space research?
  • What is the relationship, if any, between space research and other areas of research?