Intel Science Talent Search spotlights America’s whiz kids

This year's winning high schooler takes top prize for work on space navigation

YOUNG SCIENTIST Erika DeBenedictis, 18, won first place in the Intel Science Talent Search for writing navigation software for spacecraft traveling an interplanetary superhighway. She presented her research at the National Academy of Sciences March 14. Chris Ayers/Intel STS

Ten of the nation’s most innovative scientists convened in Washington this week to receive their version of Olympic Gold — temporarily putting aside their homework to do so.
Erika DeBenedictis, 18, of Albuquerque won first place in the Intel Science Talent Search, a prestigious competition for high school seniors, at a gala held the evening of March 16. DeBenedictis earned a $100,000 scholarship from the Intel Foundation for her work designing an autonomous navigation system that could help spacecraft travel swiftly and efficiently along an “interplanetary superhighway,” using planets’ gravity to catch a ride.
Second place and a $75,000 scholarship went to David Liu, 18, of Saratoga, Calif. Liu wrote software to automatically search and organize digital pictures. He trained a computer algorithm to recognize when certain features, like buildings, faces or the color green, were present in a picture, and wrote a program to display similar pictures in linked groups. Beyond organizing personal photo albums, the system could be helpful in medical imaging, space exploration and detecting threats to oil pipelines, Liu suggests.
Akhil Mathew, 18, of Madison, N.J., won third place and a $50,000 scholarship for his work on mathematical constructs called Deligne categories, which combined algebraic geometry, representation theory and category theory. Mathew used a new mathematical method to show that, when certain conditions are met, the complex version of representation theory is not too different from the classical version. His method could be applied to other problems in mathematics, he says.
Society for Science & the Public, which publishes Science News, has administered the Science Talent Search since its beginning in 1942. The Intel Foundation sponsors the competition. Vying for more than $630,000 in scholarships and other awards, the 40 finalists in this year’s competition were selected from more than 1,700 entrants, and represented 36 high schools in 18 states. Science Talent Search finalists have gone on to win seven Nobel Prizes, 10 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grants, two Fields Medals and three National Medals of Science.
“This year’s Intel STS finalists are fully worthy successors to the impressive alumni who have come before them,” says Elizabeth Marincola, president of the Society for Science & the Public. “We firmly believe that whatever fields they each pursue, the discipline and rigor of the scientific training and thinking our finalists have already pursued will serve as a robust launch-pad to their success as professionals, and as citizens of our human community.”
The gala was the culmination of a weeklong visit to Washington for all finalists. The students presented their scientific projects to the public, the scientific community and the judges at the National Academy of Sciences on March 14. Students met with 50 members of Congress and John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. But the trip left time for fun as well, including a tour of the national monuments and a bowling excursion.
“The best part has been connecting with the other 39 finalists,” Liu says. “It’s such a collaborative atmosphere.”
Intel President and CEO Paul Otellini said, “These 40 Intel Science Talent Search finalists demonstrate that we have the capability in this country to cultivate the next generation of innovators, scientists and entrepreneurs. These young scientists are proof that curious, eager minds coupled with inspiring, knowledgeable teachers are the foundation for world-changing innovation.”
The award ceremony included a speech from Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who stressed the value of imagination in our increasingly well-connected world. “You as an individual can now act on your imagination farther, faster, deeper, cheaper than ever before,” he said.
Friedman also drew applause from the audience by emphasizing the importance of a liberal arts education. “Lord knows math and science are irreplaceable, and this is not an argument against that,” he said. “It’s an argument for augmentation. Do not forget to take those liberal arts classes in college … because they are actually critical sources of creativity and inspiration.”
Fourth place and a $40,000 scholarship went to Lynnelle Ye, 18, of Palo Alto, Calif., for her analysis of a two-person combinatorial game called Chomp, which she used to reliably predict the winner of the game in a certain set of circumstances.
Eric Brooks, 16, of Hewlett, N.Y., won fifth place and a $30,000 scholarship for investigating genetic factors associated with race that affect how likely prostate cancer is to metastasize.
Sixth place went to John Capodilupo, 18, of Grand Rapids, Mich., for a detailed statistical analysis of galaxy clustering that could be useful in removing noise from future galactic surveys. Seventh place went to Benjamen Sun, 17, of Grand Forks, N.D., for studying how dirt and debris in the street interact with rainwater. Both of these students were awarded a $25,000 scholarship.
Eighth through 10th place winners each won a $20,000 scholarship. They are Katherine Rudolph, 18, of Naperville, Ill., who studied the most efficient way to arrange spheres in n-dimensional space, a project which could have implications for supercooling liquids; Yale Fan, 18, of Beaverton, Ore., for showing how quantum computing could be used to explore what algorithms would be best at solving a class of problems known as “NP-complete”; and Linda Zhou, 18, of River Edge, N.J., who showed that silencing a gene that codes for a protein called hTERT reduces drug resistance and migration of cancerous cells.
Each of the remaining 30 finalists will receive more than $7,500 in awards.
The Glenn T. Seaborg award winner, Alice Zhao, was elected by the other finalists to give a speech at the gala. Zhao, who studied dynamical spraying of nanoparticles for her project, urged her fellow finalists to take initiative, become inspired, surround themselves with like-minded people and not to worry about the problems facing their generation — they’re in good hands.

Lisa Grossman is the astronomy writer. She has a degree in astronomy from Cornell University and a graduate certificate in science writing from University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives near Boston.

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