My Week with Superheroes

It seems today that we are constantly bombarded with doom and gloom, human tragedy and conflict. It is easy for someone to get depressed or worried about what the future holds for us. I am sure many of you, like me, at times just have to shut off the TV, power down your laptop or tablet, or however you get your news, because you can’t take it anymore. You may daydream about a superhero, like Batman, coming to the rescue of Gotham City, or Superman, flying in to save the day for Metropolis.

Well this week I had an amazing opportunity to spend an awe-inspiring week watching superhuman feats in Pittsburgh. In Pittsburgh? Yes, in Pittsburgh. And it had nothing to do with the Steelers, Penguins or the Pirates. Pittsburgh is where 1700 students from over 75 countries gathered to compete in Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair, a program of the Society for Science and the Public.

intelisef2015At first I thought it might be a bit of an exaggeration when Intel’s Futurist, Brain David Johnson, asked the 1700 high school innovators to lean in so he could share with them a secret – that they were in fact superheroes.  This got me thinking about how you would define a superhero. The definition I found says a superhero is a type of heroic character possessing extraordinary talents, supernatural phenomena, or superhuman powers and is dedicated to a moral goal or protecting the public.

OK, with that definition in mind, are these young scientist and innovators super heroes? I will let you be the judge.

First, let’s take a look at Raymond Wang, a 17 year old from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. He received the Gordon E. Moore Award of $75,000 for his study of airflow in an aircraft cabin to curb disease transmission. Raymond simulated 32 scenarios of cabin airflow to track the flow of pathogens in a Boeing 737 and identified a new air inlet system that would improve the availability of fresh air in the cabin by more than 190 percent while reducing pathogen inhalation concentrations by up to 55 times compared to conventional designs.

Second, let’s consider Nicole Ticea, 16, of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, who received the Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award of $50,000 for developing an inexpensive, easy-to-use testing device to combat the high rate of undiagnosed HIV infection in low-resource communities. Nicole designed, prototyped, and tested her invention, a disposable, self-contained, electricity-free microfluidic cartridge that should cost less than $5.00 to produce and only requires a small drop of blood to obtain a readout, making it perfect for use with newborn babies.

Or how about Karan Jerath, 18, of Friendswood, Texas, who received the Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award of $50,000 for refining and testing a novel device that should allow an undersea oil well to rapidly and safely recover following a blowout. His work was inspired when the Deepwater Horizon well spilled millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico five years ago because a cofferdam (a containment enclosure) deployed to the site failed to stop the leak. Karan has developed a better cofferdam that separates the natural gas, oil, and ocean water and accommodates different water depths, pipe sizes, and fluid compositions.

intelisef2015winnersSo I ask you, do Raymond, Nicole and Karan have extraordinary talents or superhuman powers dedicated to protecting the public or a moral goal? I would say the answer to that question is a resounding yes. Of course, they are just three examples of the more than 1700 finalists who all have equally convincing cases to be made.

Intel is proud to sponsor this amazing competition and I appreciate so much the Society for Science and the Public who make this event possible. I want to thank Pittsburgh for being such a terrific host. I also hope that those of you who sometimes dream that a superhero will save the day will not just live out that fantasy by just watching the latest Marvel movie (they are fun movies, by the way). Instead I hope you will take comfort in knowing that there are scientists, young and old, who are putting their superhuman strengths to work to lift society and you will recognize them for the superheroes they are.