Young scientists, inventors and mathematicians score big

Cancer sensor, a better way to search tweets, and quantum teleportation are among research highlights at a global high-school-science competition


PITTSBURGH— It took nerves of steel—and a great science project—to survive a week of judging here in Steel City.

When all was said and done, three students at this year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair walked away with prizes worth at least $50,000. Those prizes were just a fraction of the awards valued at more than $3 million and given for projects that developed a new type of test for pancreatic cancer, a more efficient way to search through short documents such as tweets and a process that could boost data storage rates in devices using quantum memory.

Intel ISEF, a program of Society for Science & the Public (Science News for Kids’ parent organization), attracts some of the world’s best and brightest young scientists. This year, 1,549 high-school students participated in the event. They represented 446 affiliate science fairs in 68 countries, regions and territories.

In all, more than one-third of the entrants received cash awards or other prizes at a May 18 ceremony. The first- through fourth- place winners in each of 17 categories received cash awards ranging from $500 to $5,000. Other prizes ranged from scholarships and medals to paid summer internships.

A little more than 1,000 of the participants in this annual science competition presented solo research. The remainder were part of two- or three-student teams. Roughly 1 out of every 3 competitors came from outside the United States and its territories.

“We sponsor the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair to encourage millions of young innovators around the world to propel their curiosity into action,” said Wendy Hawkins, executive director of the Intel Foundation, which sponsors the competition. “The finalists gathering in Pittsburgh have the potential to contribute to solving some of the world’s most pressing issues.”

This year’s top prize, the $75,000 Gordon E. Moore award (named for the Intel co-founder), went to Jack Andraka of Crownsville, Md. For his project, he soaked small strips of paper with a solution of tiny tubes of carbon (called nanotubes) and with antibodies (part of the human immune system that help fight disease) that react with a specific natural chemical associated of pancreatic cancer. These test strips provide results in 5 minutes and cost about three cents each. Currently, the standard test for diagnosing pancreatic cancer takes 14 hours and costs about $800, says Andraka.

Andraka has applied for a patent on his development. And he’s by no means alone in doing so, notes Elizabeth Marincola, president of Society for Science & the Public. About one-fourth of his fellow Intel ISEF entrants either hold patents on their research or have applied for them, she says. Increasingly, she notes, students “are looking to develop their ideas, not just to have them.”

Two young researchers — Nicholas Schiefer of Pickering, Canada, and Ari Dyckovsky of Leesburg, Va. — received Intel Foundation Young Scientist Awards worth $50,000.

Schiefer developed a computer algorithm that more efficiently searches through short strings of text. These might be tweets (which are limited to 140 characters or less), Facebook status updates or news headlines. To boost the search efficiency, a mathematical formula he developed allows computers to scan the text, looking not only for specific keywords but also for closely related terms. For example, a search for the word “earthquake” would also scan the documents for terms such as quake, temblor, and shock.

Dyckovsky’s project focused on using quantum dots — billionth-of-a-meter-scale particles made from silicon or other solid-state materials — to store information. He developed a technique that can boost the speed at which computers can store information in memory. While current methods typically allow quantum devices to store bits of data only once every several minutes, the new technique could boost that rate to once every few seconds, he suggests.

Topical awards

Seventeen students won “best of category” awards, each worth $5,000. Andraka’s project also claimed one of these awards — in the medicine and health sciences category; Schiefer did the same in the computer science group, and Dyckovsky came in first among the entrants in physics and astronomy.

In animal sciences, Lucy Hritzo of Holland, Pa., won for her analyses of Borrelia burgdorferi, This bacterium, transmitted by ticks, causes Lyme disease. She identified a genetic difference between bacteria in the bloodstream of humans who had become infected and those that had crossed the so-called blood-brain barrier. The finding points to a possible target for treatment to alleviate or prevent some of the disease’s devastating nerve symptoms.

Analyses of how relationships between parents and children influence an adolescent’s likelihood to engage in risky behaviors won Benjamin Kornick of Roslyn Heights,N.Y., the top prize in the behavioral and social sciences category. He found that certain aspects of parent-child interactions can influence a teen’s behavior both online (such as a willingness to share personal information) and offline (such as engaging in sexual activity or drug use). For instance, he found that when parents often asked their teens about a particular risky behavior, kids were much more likely to engage in that behavior — possibly because they consider the activity to be “forbidden fruit” and therefore desirable, says Kornick.

How gene mutations affect the efficiency by which chemicals pass through the outer membranes of cells won Rebecca Alford of Commack, N.Y., the top prize for biochemistry. And Adam Noble of Lakefield, Canada, won first prize in environmental sciences for developing a technique to remove nanosilver pollution from waste water (for more on his work, check out this).

Research on interactions between two abnormal proteins in the brain of Alzheimer’s patients landed Raghav Tripathi of Portland,Ore., the top prize in cellular and molecular biology. He performed lab tests together with computer analyses of the proteins. His findings turned up possible targets for drugs that might slow the progression of dementia, a hallmark of the disease.

Naomi Shah of Portland,Ore., won top prize in the environmental science category for her tests showing that soil bacteria could be used to break down certain indoor air pollutants commonly emitted by paints, carpets and other building materials. She created a device that holds the microbes — what she calls a biofilter. If installed in a central heating and air conditioning system, it could help remove toxic chemicals circulating in a home’s air.

Felix Angelov of Skokie, Ill., took home the top microbiology award for identifying how interfering with chemical signaling between certain types of bacteria might help prevent disease. He worked with bacteria that are a close — but harmless — relative of the germs that cause cholera. He found a way to block the bacteria from recognizing a chemical trigger that causes real cholera germs to release their poisons. (Cholera is an infectious disease affecting the small intestine. It causes potentially deadly bouts of diarrhea.)

Huihui Fan of Staten Island, N.Y., identified a gene that influences root growth in Arabidopsis thaliana, a weedy plant often considered “the lab rat of agriculture.” By manipulating this gene, or by selecting plants that naturally produce certain variants of that gene, researchers may one day develop plants or crops that tolerate drought, better prevent soil erosion or more effectively soak up pollutants from soil. The finding won Fan the top award in plant sciences.

Raghavendra Ramachanderan of Bengaluru,India, developed three types of catalysts — substances that trigger or speed up chemical reactions (without undergoing any changes themselves). These new catalysts absorb energy from visible light and then deliver it to chemicals. Those chemicals then undergo reactions to reconstruct partially burned fuel. This new process could find use in everything from industrial processes to energy storage devices such as batteries — and won Ramachanderan the top award in chemistry.

The first place prize in earth science went to research analyzing possible effects of a proposed canal between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea. Water engineers have been considering the development of this canal to raise water level in the Dead Sea(which has been dropping in recent decades) and to decrease salinity in the water there. Mofeed Wael Sawan of London, Canada, found that besides these intended effects, the added water — and certain types of bacteria that would hitch a ride in it — could significantly alter the ecosystem of the Dead Sea, which may not be a good thing. In addition, the canal may change how dissolved minerals in the water drop out of solution to form sediments. Because scientists hadn’t previously considered this change, whether its effects might be good or bad is an open question.

In the energy and transportation category, Shyamal Buch of Folsom,Calif., won for his study of techniques to improve the manufacture of solar cells. His proposed changes to the nano-scale structure of the materials used to make these cells might also improve their power-generating efficiency. In mathematics, Aishwarya Vardhana of Beaverton,Ore., developed a technique to more quickly break large numbers into the smaller ones that were multiplied together to make the big number. This advance could help break certain types of codes more quickly (but, thankfully, also enhances the ability to develop stronger codes of another type).

The design for a wind turbine that could work fairly efficiently at low speeds garnered Assiya Kussainova of Karagandy,Kazakhstan, first place in electrical and mechanical engineering. Most wind turbines don’t generate power efficiently at wind speeds below 10 meters per second (and can’t operate at all when wind speeds drop below 5 m/s), the young woman explains. But substituting long, rotating cylinders for the more-aerodynamic blades found on most standard wind turbines could enable the turbines to generate power at wind speeds as low as 3 m/s, her work indicates.

Ryota Ishizuka of Cos Cob,Conn., won first place in materials science and bioengineering, for developing an electronic skin that might be used on robots. The new skin includes thin-film sensors as well as flexible circuits and solar cells. Such a skin might allow a robot that is sent into a dangerous area to sense, grab, and retrieve objects; or to touch them and detect biochemical agents.

Travel awards too

In addition to their “best of category” awards, Fan, Noble and Ramachanderan received the Dudley R. Herschbach Stockholm International Youth Science Seminar award. It includes an all-expenses-paid trip to the seminar in Sweden and to the Nobel Prize ceremonies in Stockholm.

Kussainova, Shah and Tripathi also won all-expense-paid trips — in their cases to attend the European Union Contest for Young Scientists. This year, the competition takes place in the capital ofSlovakia—Bratislava— during September.

As the projects described here illustrate, “the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair provides an opportunity for the best young scientists from around the globe to share ideas and showcase their cutting-edge science projects,” says Marincola. “By inspiring and rewarding young scientists, this program, now in its 63rd year, will help the next generation usher in new solutions to global challenges, which are vital to our common future.”

About Sid Perkins

Sid Perkins is an award-winning science writer who lives in Crossville, Tenn., with his wife, two dogs and three cats. He enjoys cooking and woodworking, and he really, really wants to get better at golf.