Teens take home science gold

A low-cost, self-driving vehicle; battery alternatives and analyses of galaxy clusters claim top prizes at a global high school science competition

Eesha Khare (left), Ionut Budisteanu (center) and Henry Wanjune Lin (right) claimed the top three prizes at this year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix, Arizona. Budisteanu’s work toward developing a self-driving car earned the 19-year-old Romanian inventor the $75,000 top prize. Credit: Intel/Chris Ayers
Eesha Khare (left), Ionut Budisteanu (center) and Henry Wanjune Lin (right) claimed the top three prizes at this year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix, Arizona. Budisteanu’s work toward developing a self-driving car earned the 19-year-old Romanian inventor the $75,000 top prize. Intel/Chris Ayers

PHOENIX — Hate driving your car when you could be a passenger? A self-driving vehicle that one day could chauffer you around town brought its inventor, a 19-year-old Romanian computer scientist, the top prize — and $75,000 — this week at the world’s premier high school research competition.

Ionut Budisteanu of Liceul Tehnologic Oltchim in Ramnicu Valcea, Romania, was the big winner at this year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, or Intel ISEF. He was one of three young researchers at the event who each walked away with prizes worth more than $50,000. The competition took place in Phoenix, Ariz.

Society for Science & the Public created the fair in 1950 and still runs it. (SSP also publishes Science News for Kids.) This year, more than one-third of the roughly 1,600 Intel ISEF finalists received awards on May 17. Together, those prizes are valued at more than $4 million.

The annual science competition attracts some of the world’s most talented young researchers. This year’s finalists were selected from among the winners at science fairs in more than 70 countries, regions and territories. Almost 35 percent of the finalists in this year’s competition hail from outside the United States. And 467 of them — almost 30 percent — either have a patent on their work or intend to apply for one.

“This competition encourages millions of students worldwide every year to explore their passion for math and science while developing solutions for global challenges,” said Wendy Hawkins. She’s the executive director of the Intel Foundation, which sponsors the massive competition.

Its $75,000 top cash prize is named for Gordon E. Moore, Intel’s cofounder. Budisteanu was given this award for designing software that could be used to pilot a low-cost, self-navigating vehicle. Such a car would address a major global issue: Human error is responsible for about 90 percent of fatal auto accidents. A computer that never tires or gets distracted could reduce the risk of collisions.

The teen’s design relies on Internet-linked cameras, or webcams. They detect people, other cars and large objects such as trees. An onboard, 3-D laser radar measures the distance between the car and those objects. It uses that information to adjust the speed of the vehicle. It also helps the car know when to maneuver out of the way of an impending accident.

Onboard software helps recognize road signs, lane markers, traffic lanes and curbs. The software adds such newly encountered features to a database. This database would be available to all cars connected to the Internet.

Two young researchers each received Intel Foundation Young Scientist Awards of $50,000.

Eesha Khare, 18, of San Jose, Calif., picked up one for designing and building a supercapacitor. Like batteries, capacitors store electrical energy. The single electrode in Khare’s device has a core of hydrogen-rich titanium dioxide. A flexible, plasticlike polymer surrounds that core. The teen’s analyses show that her novel device can charge up very quickly.

It also can store almost three times as much electrical energy as previous capacitors. And it stores that energy in a tiny volume, one comparable to a battery’s. (Previous capacitors haven’t been able to do that.) Her new device also holds a charge far longer than batteries do.

Henry Wanjune Lin, 17, of Shreveport, La., took home the other $50,000 cash award, for modeling the behavior of distant galaxies. Galaxies are huge collections of stars that are bound by gravity and move as a unit. Many galaxies occur in clusters. Lin compared his mathematical predictions about galaxy clusters with what astronomers have observed using telescopes. He found that the scientists are slightly more likely to find a particular type of cluster: ones that have galaxies with cooler-than-usual temperatures at their core. But overall, the teen confirmed, the way astronomers have been surveying clustered galaxies works well.

Seventeen students won “best of category” awards, each worth $5,000. Budisteanu’s project claimed top honors among computer science projects. Khare conquered the chemistry category, and Lin won the day in the physics-and-astronomy group.

Other first-place category winners include:

For animal sciences, Michael Shao, 16, of Northville, Mich. He won for showing how a worm often used in lab studies responds to cold temperatures. The worm, C. elegans, has a small, simple nervous system. That’s why it often serves as a model for the human nervous system. Shao studied the worm at temperatures between 4° and 20° Celsius (39° and 68° Fahrenheit). His findings may help scientists design medicines or treatments that help people better withstand the cold.

In behavioral and social sciences, Zarin Rahman, 16, of Brookings, S.D. Her study showed that stressful factors such as getting too little sleep or watching too much TV impair a teen’s mood and memory.

In earth and planetary sciences, Gyou Tanaka, 16, of Mobara, Japan. He dug up small seashells from several layers of dirt at a site southeast of Tokyo. His goal: to understand the environment there 300,000 years ago. He showed this region had been part of the Pacific seafloor. Water depths there at the time were somewhere between 10 and 30 meters (32 to 98 feet), he reports.

In electrical and mechanical engineering, Zeyu Liu, 17, of Calgary, Alberta, in Canada. The device he designed minimizes friction in systems used to store energy in large rotating wheels. It uses several types of magnets to lift the wheel and make it float in a stable position. This cut the wheel’s energy losses.

In environmental sciences, Naomi Shah, 17, of Portland, Ore. The air filter she created includes natural materials such as peat, mulch and live plants. In tests, the filter reduced some harmful chemicals in the air by as much as 24 percent. Her filter also cut the number of small pollution particles in the air by 18 percent. Indoor air pollution contributes to nearly 2 million deaths across the globe each year, she notes.

In mathematical sciences, Vinay Iyengar, 17, of Portland, Ore. His new mathematical techniques more efficiently create secret codes. He showed that the new methods work much better than current code-making schemes. But, he warns: The same techniques can be used to break codes as well.

In medicine and health, Jessie MacAlpine, 17, of Woodstock, Ontario, in Canada. She demonstrated that mustard oil, a simple cooking oil, can help slow the spread of malaria. In her tests, ingesting the oil slowed by 94 percent the growth of parasites that spread malaria. The cost of the amount of oil a person would need to take each day is about one-millionth the cost of currently used antimalaria drugs.

In microbiology, David Zimmerman, 18, of Los Angeles, Calif. He studied a microbe often used in battery-like fuel cells. These devices use bacteria to help generate electricity. Until now, it has been difficult to genetically alter that microbe to make it more useful. But this teen developed a way to do that. His techniques also can be used to change the genetic code in other difficult-to-modify microbes, he suggests.

In biochemistry, Savannah Tobin, 18, of Salem, Ore. She found a way to measure a particular chemical in cat saliva that can cause allergies in people. Unlike previous tests, which required veterinarians to take blood samples, her test is inexpensive and quick.

In cellular and molecular biology, Hannah Wastyk, 17, of Palmyra, Pa. She developed a promising treatment for melanoma, a particularly deadly form of skin cancer. The treatment is particularly promising because it kills a large proportion of the cancer cells but doesn’t affect most healthy cells.

In materials and bioengineering, Samantha Marquez, 17, of Midlothian, Va. She created hollow shells of cells made from bacteria and algae. These living capsules could be injected into patients to deliver drugs, she notes. They could also be used as miniature containers for a variety of lab tests.

In energy and transportation, Evie Sobczak, 16, of St. Petersburg, Fla. She found a better way to grow algae and then break them down to extract the oil they contain. This oil could be used as fuel. Her techniques boosted oil production by up to 20 percent. This might help make biofuels more economical, she says.

In environmental management, Shixuan Li, 15, of Lynn Haven, Fla. He created an efficient way to extract an antioxidant from shrimp shells. One kilogram (2.2 pounds) of this substance, astaxanthin, is worth about $6,000. The shells he used to get it are typically thrown away, for free, as waste.

In plant sciences, Samantha DiSalvo, Ryan Kenny and Amy Vitha of Hewlett, N.Y. They probed how plants respond to, and sometimes resist, bacterial infections. These processes haven’t been studied in detail at the molecular level, the students note.

In addition to their “best of category” awards, Tobin, Wastyk and Zimmerman received the Dudley R. Herschbach Stockholm International Youth Science Seminar award. Herschbach, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, is the former chairman of Society for Science & the Public. The award includes an all-expenses-paid trip to Stockholm, Sweden, this December. There, the teens will also attend the Nobel Prize ceremonies.

Li, Marquez and Sobczak each also won a behind-the-scenes visit to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. During their trip, they will also visit scientists at nearby Caltech to discuss the research each teen presented at this year’s Intel ISEF competition.

Kenny, DiSalvo and Vitha will also participate in the London International Youth Science Forum this summer. The annual two-week program hosts 300 young scientists from more than 50 nations.

Second- through fourth-place winners in each of the 17 categories received cash awards ranging from $1,500 to $500. Additional awards handed out at the Intel ISEF competition ranged from college scholarships and medals to paid summer internships.

“As this competition gets bigger, students not previously involved in such competitions can realize that independent research is both possible and rewarding,” says Elizabeth Marincola, president of Society for Science & the Public.

Power Words

capacitor An electrical component used to store energy. Unlike batteries, which store energy chemically, capacitors store energy physically, in a form very much like static electricity.

galaxy A massive group of stars bound together by gravity. Galaxies, which each typically include between 10 million and 100 trillion stars, also include clouds of gas, dust and the remnants of exploded stars.

software The computer programs, or instructions, that direct a computer’s hardware, including its processor, to perform certain operations.