Students of Serious Science

Imagine a circular room where the farther you walk around the outer rim of its stone-tiled floor, the more enlightened you become. Or the less enlightened you feel.

The place exists, but only for a week, once a year in Washington, D.C., the capital of the USA.

Over the weekend of March 8th and 9th, the rotunda of the National Academy of Sciences filled with the projects, problems, and contemplations of some of the brightest young people around.-forty of them.

All are honored finalists in one of the oldest pre-college science competitions in America; affectionately—and some may say long-windedly—called the Intel Science Talent Search. The high school seniors showed off their original research and had it reviewed and judged by highly regarded scientists, mathematicians and engineers.

This is no mere science fair. No baking soda volcanoes or flashlight circuits here. The science unfolds from cardboard display boards with project descriptions like: microbial fuel cells; novel efflux pump inhibitors to improve the efficiency of antibiotics; problems in combinatorial geometry; evaluating a protein that inhibits cell death in cancer cells: or a cost-effective, intelligent control method for below-elbow prosthetic hands.

Between setting-up their projects and answering questions — lots of questions from the judges, from the public, from the media — the students talked to video crews from Intel and made their own camcorder confessionals.

Those chats revealed that while all the research on display here is the work of brilliant minds, in many cases the inspiration comes from their hearts.

“On a personal level, one of my best friend’s mother died from breast cancer. So I’ve always been interested in how cancer works,” says Ashok Chandran, 17, of Nesconset New York, looking into a camera. “And I think, with rising teen smoking rates today, it’s an important study that people my age should know about because by age 50 teen smokers are more likely to develop breast cancer””

Ashok’s work builds on speculation that teen girls usually start smoking when there mammary tissue is most susceptible. “I found that nicotine can cause breast tumors to grow faster, spread more, and become much more resistant to chemotherapy. I want to continue this research through college because I think it is so groundbreaking and important. I want to continue this as much as I can.”

For Shivani Sud, the catalyst for her research was an even closer personal crisis. “I had a family member who was diagnosed with a brain tumor when I was six,” says the 17 year old from Durham, North Carolina. Her project focused on finding better ways to diagnose and treat colon cancer in its early stages. “When you’re six years old, you don’t think of topics about death or dying. So a lot of that inspired me.”

Graham Van Schaik‘s grandmother got him thinking differently. She likes to garden. She’s gone organic. Before, she used to use a common household pesticide on her vegetables. Great results. But she found using the pesticide would cause her to feel ill, light-headed. She told her grandson, and he went to the internet and found the active chemical ingredient in the pesticide had been linked to cancer. And that prompted Graham’s research.

The inspiration for many of these budding scientists and mathematiciasns is not just a painful experience. Sheer passion drives them as well.

Olivia Hu is bi-lingual. But her parents only speak Chinese. “They speak Chinese at home, and they haven’t been able to learn much English, and I’m a minority in this country, and want to make it easier for others to learn,” she said. Her project looks at how the right and left sides of the brain learn language – when they’re character based – like Chinese. The hope of the 17-year old from Little Neck, NY,is that further study will provide insight to improve the learning of second languages.

Jeremy Blum,17, has turned his passion for many scientific disciplines into a device that one day could be useful to many injured veterans. The Armonk, New York high-schooler has developed a cost-effective, intelligent control method for artificial hands. “Prosthetic technology was a great way for me to integrate a number of facets of engineering—what I’m really interested in–,but it also has the potential to help people.” He’s already taking to the Veterans Administration, which rehabilitates injured soldiers returning from wars such as the conflict in Iraq.

Timothy Chang thinks there’s a better way to provide us with more electricity while cleaning the planet. And it’s not a hybrid engine. He’s working on a bacteria battery. He designed and constructed microbial fuel cells that use bacteria from ordinary wastewater to produce electricity.

“In our wastewater alone, there’s about $2-billion in energy or about 34-billion kilowatt hours,” says Chang. Timothy, from Rego Park. Queens, New York., is only 16 years-old.

On this chilly weekend in March, inside a quarry stone building in a city of marble and granite buildings, you can see the future flash before your eyes. You can see the science and math flash in their eyes too.

This year, Intel and The Society for Science and the Public are celebrating a 10th anniversary of this exhibition of deep thinking.

Saturday was project set-up day and on Sunday the public got their first chance to see the exhibits. Really, it is the beginning of a final stretch that started months ago like a marathon with 1602 entrants across the country. Now the field is down to these 14 young women and 26 young men from 35 schools in 19 states.

If described as an equation, The Intel Science Talent Search is 40 students plus their projects, divided into judging, for a net gain of about $530,000 in college scholarships and gifts.

The science is serious—real serious. Serious enough to win one of the high-school seniors here a $100-thousand dollar college scholarship. Serious enough to lead to a medical breakthrough, or computer innovation or a new model for social behavior. Serious enough to launch a long career in science, engineering and math. Or spawn solutions that benefit humankind. Serious enough even to lead to a Nobel Prize later in life.

The scholarships and honors are handed out Tuesday, March 11th at a gala in Washington DC.