America’s top teen scientists

Three high school seniors claim top awards in $1 million competition

2015 STS winners

The three top winners of the 2015 Intel Science Talent Search. From left, Noah Golowich, Andrew Jin and Michael Hofmann Winer.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — When throwing a party, it takes just six guests to guarantee at least three will be mutual friends or mutual strangers, mathematicians say. This year, when it came to celebrating the winners of America’s premier high school science and math competition, it took 40 finalists to guarantee (for the first time) three top winners.

The prizes were handed out during a gala celebration held in the nation’s capital on March 10. There, advanced research in pattern-finding, genetic mutations and sound earned each of three teens $150,000. These teens each took home a first-place award from the Intel Science Talent Search (STS) 2015. STS is America’s oldest and most prestigious competition of its kind for high school seniors.

Intel Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif., and Society for Science & the Public (SSP) gave out the cash awards, which totaled more than $1 million overall. Competition judges awarded individual first-place prizes to Noah Golowich, Andrew Jin and Michael Hofmann Winer. Each won in different categories, established for the first time in 2015. Previously, Intel granted only a single first-place prize of $100,000.

Speaking of the 2015 finalists, Maya Ajmera said: “These students serve as shining examples of the incredible work being accomplished in STEM fields by young people.” Ajmera is SSP’s president and chief executive — and an STS alumna herself. “We are proud to recognize and reward these stellar young researchers,” she says. Based here in Washington, SSP is the nonprofit organization that publishes Science News and Science News for Students. It launched STS in 1942. Intel has sponsored the competition since 1998.

Kip Thorne, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and the science adviser to the movie Interstellar had high hopes for the finalists. “You…represent the future of our nation’s science [and] the future of the world’s science,” he said in a keynote speech. “You have the opportunity to have a huge impact on humanity.”

Truly accomplished teens

Noah, 17, of Lexington, Mass., picked up his first place medal of distinction for basic research. He developed a proof in a field of mathematics known as Ramsey theory. It focuses on finding patterns in large and complicated systems. One prime example is the so-called Party Problem, introduced at the beginning of this story.

At Lexington High School, Noah captains the school’s math team and plays jazz piano. He also helped his school’s tennis team take home the 2014 state championships. Noah did so by remaining undefeated in all 11 of his singles matches.

Andrew, also 17, of San Jose, Calif., won his first place medal of distinction for providing some global good. He developed a set of instructions called an algorithm. A computer can use his algorithm to identify one or more tiny changes in a person’s complete set of genetic instructions. Such changes in a person’s genome, called mutations, can lead to disease. An example is schizophrenia (SKITZ-oh-FREN-ee-ah). Identifying its genetic cause could lead to treatments or even a vaccine.

Andrew attends The Harker School. An accomplished classical pianist, he’s performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City. He also captains his high school debate squad and coaches the middle school debate team.

Michael, 18, of North Bethesda, Md., took home his first place medal of distinction for innovation. He studied phonons. These are the fundamental units of sound. Like heat, sound results from the vibration of particles. Michael studied how phonons interact with electrons. These are the smallest of the particles that form all atoms. Michael’s research showed how electrons absorb and emit phonons when bombarded by sound waves. His work could be applied to more complex atomic structures. One example: superconductors. These are materials that can carry electric currents without disruption.

Michael attends Montgomery Blair High School. Previously, he won a silver medal at the 2014 International Physics Olympiad. During that competition, he was the highest scoring U.S. student on the theoretical exam. At Montgomery Blair, he captains the physics and Science Bowl teams. He also competes on its math team.

Three second-place winners each received cash awards of $75,000: Brice Huang, 17, of Princeton Junction, N.J., West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North; Kalia D. Firester, 17, of New York, N.Y., Hunter College High School; and Saranesh (Saran) Thanika Prembabu, 17, of San Ramon, Calif., Dougherty Valley High School.

Three third-place winners each picked up prizes of $35,000: Shashwat Kishore, 18, of West Chester, Pa., Unionville High School; Anvita Gupta, 17, of Scottsdale, Ariz., BASIS Scottsdale; and Catherine J. Li, 18, of Orlando, Fla., Lake Highland Preparatory School.

Corporations and new companies will need employees with “a solid foundation in science, technology, engineering and math . . . to drive their business and contribute to economic development,” says Renee James. She’s president of Intel Corp. “We hope this program will encourage other young people to become the next generation of scientists, inventors and engineers,” she says of STS.

Since STS got its start 73 years ago, participants have gone on to win multiple other awards. Examples include eight Nobel Prizes — and one Academy Award. Natalie Portman won an Oscar in 2011 for her role in the movie “Black Swan.” She was an STS semifinalist in 1999.

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

algorithm  A group of rules or procedures for solving a problem in a series of steps. Algorithms are used in mathematics and in computer programs for figuring out solutions.

basic research    Research performed to gain a general understanding of how things work, and not with any particular application in mind. This type of work is contrasted with applied research, which is work done to accomplish a particular purpose — such as to cure disease, make a building stronger or make a fuel burn cleaner.

current (in electricity) The flow of electricity or the amount of electricity moving through some point over a particular period of time.

economic development   Policies aimed at improving the lives of people through changes in their income and quality of life (as measured by improvements in their health, safety, education and more).

electron  A negatively charged particle, usually found orbiting the outer regions of an atom; also, the carrier of electricity within solids.

genetic  Having to do with chromosomes, DNA and the genes contained within DNA. The field of science dealing with these biological instructions is known as genetics. People who work in this field are geneticists.

genome    The complete set of genes or genetic material in a cell or an organism. The study of this genetic inheritance housed within cells is known as genomics.

mutation  Some change that occurs to a gene in an organism’s DNA. Some mutations occur naturally. Others can be triggered by outside factors, such as pollution, radiation, medicines or something in the diet. A gene with this change is referred to as a mutant.

natural selection   This is guiding concept underlying evolution, or natural adaptation. It holds that natural mutations within a population of organisms will create some new forms that are better adapted to their environment. That adaptation makes them more likely to survive and reproduce. Over time, these survivors may come to dominate the original population. If their adaptive changes are significant enough, those survivors may also constitute a new species.

particle  A minute amount of something.

phonon  The basic unit of sound.

schizophrenia   A serious brain disorder that can lead to hallucinations, delusions and other uncontrolled behaviors.

superconductor  Materials that have no resistance to the flow of electricity, typically only when they are cooled below a certain temperature. Superconductors also repel all magnetic fields, which allows them to float in the air when they are placed inside a strong magnetic field.

theory  (in science)  A description of some aspect of the natural world based on extensive observations, tests and reason. A theory can also be a way of organizing a broad body of knowledge that applies in a broad range of circumstances to explain what will happen. Unlike the common definition of theory, a theory in science is not just a hunch. Ideas or conclusions that are based on a theory — and not yet on firm data or observations — are referred to as theoretical.

vaccine  A biological mixture that resembles a disease-causing agent. It is given to help the body create immunity to a particular disease. The injections used to administer most vaccines are known as vaccinations.

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