Message in DNA tops Science Talent Search

With the presidential nominations for both parties settled, the hottest contest in Washington, D.C., this week was the Intel Science Talent Search (STS), which honors research done by high school students around the country. One former STS participant, among a group that includes five Nobel laureates, recalls the finalist competition as his introduction to the “big leagues of science.”

Intel Science Talent Search top winners: Zhang (3rd), Risca (1st), and Getz (2nd). Intel

If that’s true, then Viviana I. Risca of Port Washington, N.Y., just hit a grand slam to win the World Series. She took home this year’s top Intel STS prize, a $100,000 college scholarship, for a project on encrypting words within a strand of DNA.

The award-winning research by the 17-year-old native of Romania grew out of an encounter at a local science fair 2 years ago. A judge who saw Risca’s entry there, Carter Bancroft of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, asked her to help him study whether DNA can be a medium for steganography, a method in which the sender hides a message among a massive amount of unrelated information. For example, German spies shrank photographs down to microdots, which they embedded as periods in innocuous letters.

Risca designed a DNA strand whose chemical composition encodes a great secret of World War II—JUNE 6 INVASION: NORMANDY—and mixed it with normal human DNA. She surrounded the coded words with DNA sequences known as primers. Only a recipient who knew the primers could find the message. She and her colleagues described the strategy’s success in the June 10, 1999 Nature.

The second prize, a $75,000 scholarship, went to Jayce R. Getz of Missoula, Mont., for his efforts to extend famed Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan’s conjectures on integers. While the results may have implications for designing polymers, Getz says that the “beauty” of the math motivated him.

Feng Zhang of Des Moines, Iowa, took the third prize, a $50,000 scholarship, for investigating how a mouse virus similar to HIV constructs its inner skeleton. He identified part of a gene that may slow the construction and examined whether it could suggest novel drugs against AIDS.

Alexander B. Schwartz of Bryn Mawr, Pa., grabbed fourth place and $25,000 with his algebra project on how to partition so-called Abelian groups into subgroups. Receiving $25,000 for fifth place, Eugene M. Simuni of Brooklyn, N.Y., compared structures and functions of G proteins, which convey signals within a cell. Also, the Intel STS finalists voted Simuni, who emigrated from Russia 2 years ago, the winner of the Glenn T. Seaborg Award. Honoring a love of science, it’s named after the Nobel laureate who judged STS projects for decades.

Taking sixth place and $25,000, Matthew B. Reece of Louisville, Ky., developed a new way to simulate flow of fluids. Seventh place and $20,000 went to Kerry A. Geiler of Massapequa Park, N.Y., who compared communication of different ant species. Testing how people visually detect targets against a confusing background earned Elizabeth K. Williams of Palos Verdes Estates, Calif., eighth place and $20,000.

In ninth, which also carries a $20,000 reward, Zachary H. Cohn of Dix Hills, N.Y., explored theories related to the squares of integers. Rounding out the top 10 and winning $20,000, Bob W.C. Cherng from Whittier, Calif., examined the chemistry of gaseous ammonia and hydrogen halide reacting to create a solid.

The 30 other finalists didn’t go home empty-handed. Each received a $5,000 scholarship and a laptop computer. Simuni emphasizes that the finalists didn’t conduct their research solely to win prizes. “The most important reward is the discovery of something new,” he says.

Science Service, publisher of Science News, has run STS for 59 years.

More Stories from Science News on Humans