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Intel ISEF winners announced

Projects on smarter roundworms, glowing bacteria as pollutant detectors and the shared history of bees and nematodes take three top spots

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5:34pm, May 15, 2009
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RENO, Nev. — What happens in Reno doesn’t stay in Reno, and some high school students are very pleased about that. On May 15, three top finalists at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair hit the jackpot, each winning a $50,000 scholarship from the Intel Foundation. Those prizes were part of nearly $4 million in scholarships, tuition grants and scientific trips and equipment awarded at the world's largest high-school science competition.

Olivia Schwob of Boston won for her experiments that helped the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans learn better. Previous work had shown that a protein known as GAP-43 was important in learning in humans. Schwob thought this protein might improve learning in the lowly roundworm, so she introduced GAP-43 into the roundworm’s DNA. When worms with the protein received a positive or negative stimulus, they changed their behavior; worms without the protein did not. The work may help in gaining a better understanding of learning disabilities in humans.

Li Boynton of Houston also won a top prize, for developing a technique that uses the bioluminescent bacterium Vibrio fischeri to detect environmental contaminants. Boynton exposed the bacterium to several pollutants, such as the herbicide atrazine, and correlated the extent of the bacterium’s glow to the level of contaminant. The relationship could supply a quick and cheap method for detecting pollutants in water.

Tara Adiseshan of Charlottesville, Va., won for her investigation of the evolutionary relationships between several species of sweat bees and several species of roundworms, or nematodes, that live in, but do not harm, the bees. Adiseshan determined the genetic code of a specific gene in several species of the bees and the nematodes. Then she used these gene sequences to build family trees for both groups of organisms. Her analysis revealed that the bees and nematodes had a tight-knit relationship throughout evolutionary history, diverging into new species at the same time.

Other top prizes included the Seaborg SIYSS Award, which is an all expense–paid trip to the Stockholm International Youth Science Seminar (SIYSS) in Sweden and entry to the Nobel Prize ceremonies. The award is named in honor of chemist and Nobel laureate Glenn T. Seaborg. Seaborg chaired the board of Society for Science & the Public, formerly Science Service, which publishes Science News and also administers the science fair. Two students won Seaborgs: Eric Larson of Eugene, Ore., for his work on algebraic fusion categories, which have implications for theoretical physics and computer science; and Preya Shah of Setauket, N.Y., for her development of tumor-targeting drugs that provide a one-two punch. Larson and Shah were also winners of the Intel Science Talent Search: Larson won first place and a $100,000 scholarship and Shah won eighth place and a $20,000 scholarship.

Eighteen students and two student teams won “best of” awards — a $5,000 scholarship, laptop computer and a trip to Geneva to tour CERN — for work in their specific discipline. Adiseshan won best of in the animal sciences category, Schwob in behavioral and social sciences, Boynton in environmental sciences, Larson in mathematical sciences and Shah in chemistry. Each category also has first-, second-, third- and fourth-place winners. All receive scholarships. The first- and second-place winners also have their names submitted as proposed names for minor planets or asteroids.

In biochemistry, Anartya Mandal of Brighton, Mass., won for research into inhibiting cancer cells with curcumin. Ronit Abramson of San Diego won in cellular and molecular biology for her investigation of cell wall development in the marine microorganisms known as diatoms. Kevin Ellis of Vancouver, Wash., won in computer science for his development of a program that splits tasks among computer chips. In earth and planetary science, Marley Iredale of Sequim, Wash., won for her research into the history and risk of tsunamis in Discovery Bay, Wash. Alexander Kendrick of Los Alamos, N.M., won in electrical and mechanical engineering for designing and building a two-way, digital underground radio that could be used in cave and mine rescues. In materials and bioengineering, Scott Skirlo of Fairfax, Va., won for his research into the material properties of nickel titanium, or nitinol, under extreme hot and cold conditions.

Ryan Alexander of Plano, Texas, won in energy and transportation for his research into cheap and easily built devices that capture wind energy. In environmental management, Eliza McNitt of Greenwich, Conn., won for her work investigating the role of the pesticide Imidacloprid in the bee epidemic known as colony collapse disorder. Ashoka Rajendra of Sterling, Va., won in medicine and health for his research into therapeutic treatments for prostate cancer. In microbiology, I-Ching Tseng of Taichung City, Taiwan, won for her investigation of Styrofoam-digesting microbes from the mealworm digestive tract. Nilesh Tripuraneni of Fresno, Calif., won in physics and astronomy for studies of quark-gluon plasma, the superhot material created after the Big Bang.

In plant sciences, Mark Chonofsky of Lexington, Mass., won for his research on Taxaceae, the plant family that includes the species from which the cancer drug Taxol is derived. Two team projects were recognized: In life sciences, Shaunak Bakshi and Peter Massey of Manhasset, N.Y., won for work using fruit flies to study how lipoic acid might treat Alzheimer’s disease. In physical sciences, Erika DeBenedictis, Haochen Hong and Duanni Huang of Albuquerque won for developing a new approach for identifying asteroids.

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