From cancer to quantum, teens’ scientific feats celebrated

Winners of the 2012 Intel ISEF show the promise of science for improving the world

PITTSBURGH — New ways to detect cancer, search online social networks and link atoms using quantum physics took the highest honors this week at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburgh.

WINNING MOMENT Winners of the top prizes at the Intel 2012 International Science and Engineering Fair celebrate at a ceremony on May 18. From left, Ari Dyckovsky, first place winner Jack Andraka and Nicholas Schiefer. Patrick Thornton/SSP

The event, which is the world’s largest international precollege science fair, brought 1,549 finalists to the Steel City. Over the course of a week, students presented their research to a stream of judges, reporters and members of the public. Winners divvied up more than $3 million in awards, including a top prize of $75,000 announced during a May 18 ceremony. Society for Science & the Public, or SSP, runs the competition.

“As a group, you are a force for profound good,” SSP president and publisher of Science News Elizabeth Marincola told the finalists. “Your innovative thinking can help humanity adopt more effective responses to natural and man-made disasters, transition to safer and smarter vehicles, and discover new ways of treating and preventing disease.” 

Jack Andraka claimed the $75,000 prize, given in honor of Intel cofounder Gordon E. Moore. A family tragedy motivated Andraka, a 15-year-old from Crownsville, Md., to create strips of paper that can help detect pancreatic cancer.

“My uncle died of pancreatic cancer 10 months ago,” Andraka said.

Nearly 44,000 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2012, the National Cancer Institute estimates. High levels of a protein called mesothelin in the blood can reveal the presence of such tumors. But the lack of a quick, cheap diagnostic test for the protein means that the disease tends to be caught late, making it an especially lethal cancer.

Searching for a better detector for mesothelin, Andraka coated paper with tiny tubes of atom-thick carbon. Antibodies stuck to the carbon nanotubes can grab the telltale protein and spread the tubes apart. The carbon’s resistance to the flow of electricity drops measurably as more protein attaches. Tests of the paper using blood samples from 100 people with cancer at different stages of the disease identified the presence of cancer every time, Andraka reported.  

Nicholas Schiefer, a 17-year-old from Richmond Hill, Canada, received the Intel Foundation’s $50,000 Young Scientist Award for a new way to search Twitter tweets, Facebook status updates and other small Web documents. Algorithms trying to sift through such piles of information tend to use each keyword entered for the search in isolation. Schiefer linked keywords to other related words, connecting “Fukushima” to “earthquake” and “nuclear disaster,” for instance.

This approach lends itself to rummaging through short text tidbits that may lack the specific keywords used in a search. The technique outperforms any other single algorithm on the hunt with five or fewer keywords.

“What I’ve developed could be a piece of a commercial search engine,” said Schiefer, who added that such engines typically use many algorithms working in concert. 

A Young Scientist Award also went to 18-year-old Ari Dyckovsky from Leesburg, Va., a science fair veteran whose work to push forward computers with quantum physics earned him a spot as a finalist earlier this year at the Intel Science Talent Search in Washington, D.C. That competition is also run by SSP.

When two atoms spit out particles of light with the same frequency, that light can be manipulated to create a quantum mechanical link, a phenomenon called entanglement. But the light usually comes out in a mishmash of different frequencies, so it can take minutes to make a connection.

Dyckovsky’s idea is to filter such light to a single frequency, which could theoretically cut the time to seconds or less and speed up the process of transferring quantum information over such connection. The research, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Physical Review A, could also give a boost to hybrid systems that join individual atoms to clumps of atoms called quantum dots.

“Just like with cars and just like with crops, hybridization can make things more efficient,” said Dyckovsky.

Each of the top projects also won a Best of Category award and $5,000 from Intel. So did 14 other projects in categories ranging from animal sciences to mathematics. First place and second place winners in each category received $3,000 and $1,500, respectively. 

Other students’ projects earned them free trips to distant places. Assiya Kussainova, a 16-year-old from Karaganda in Kazakhstan, will travel to the European Union Contest for Young Scientists in Bratislava, Slovakia. She invented a wind turbine that can spin and produce energy even in slow air currents.

Noticed for a filter that spares lungs from organic compounds in the air, 16-year-old Naomi Shah from Portland, Ore., will join Kussainova. So will another 16-year-old Portlander: Raghav Tripathi, who studied two molecules that build up in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. He showed that the two molecules can stick together and found ways to disrupt that interaction.

Three other students will travel to the Stockholm International Youth Science Seminar and attend the Nobel Prize ceremony, as winners of the Dudley R. Herschbach SIYSS Award. Herschbach received the 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and is emeritus board chair of SSP.

Raghavendra Ramachanderan, a 17-year-old from Chennai, India, earned his voyage to Sweden by creating catalysts for regenerating spent fuel. The metal-based molecules harness the energy of visible light to knock oxygen atoms off glucose and tack on hydrogen, creating the hydrocarbon hexane.

“Using sunlight to do this kind of reaction is an entirely new thing,” said Ramachanderan.

SIYSS prizewinner Adam Noble recruited algae to collect silver particles. Nanosilver, which has antibacterial properties useful in socks and many other products, often ends up in wastewater. Worried that the substance might also have harmful effects on people, Noble crafted an algae filter that can remove 99.99 percent of the dissolved silver coming from a treatment plant near his high school in Lakefield, Canada.

At current market prices, the quantity of silver nanoparticles removed every year would be worth $4.2 million, the 18-year-old estimated. That could more than pay for a scaled up version of the device.

The third SIYSS recipient grows plants with designer roots. Huihui Fan of New York City discovered a gene that helps to control the size and number of roots. Disrupting the gene produces plants with stunted roots — a useful attribute for plants grown in contaminated soil. Ramping up the gene spurs plants to grow deep roots with lots of branches that are great at sucking nutrients and water out of clean soil and, thus, require less fertilizer.

As they leave Pittsburgh, Fan and the other winners take with them not only their prizes but also new relationships that introduced them to the global nature of science. When she wasn’t explaining her project, Fan found herself explaining the concept of a sales tax to a finalist from Saudi Arabia in a neighboring booth.

“It was great to meet people from all over the world,” said Fan. “I had fun with them at the dance parties … even though I have no dance moves.”

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