Science Derby: Student research and inventions nab awards

Just a week after Louisville hosted the Kentucky Derby, a different sort of horse race came to town. On May 12, more than 1,200 high school students entered the home stretch for more than $3 million in scholarships and prizes at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF).

SWEDEN-BOUND. Top ISEF prizewinners are (from left) Naveen Neil Sinha, Nina Vasan, and Alexander C. Mittal. S. Perkins

Award ceremonies on May 18 capped a week in which budding young scientists from 39 countries rubbed elbows with Nobel prize winners. Students also met three of the five surviving Rocket Boys, the West Virginians who dabbled with home-built rockets in the 1950s and were memorialized in the 1999 movie October Sky.

In a photo finish, three students each garnered a $50,000 scholarship, a high-performance computer, and a trip to the Nobel prize award ceremony in Stockholm this December.

“I didn’t expect this at all,” said 17-year-old Naveen Neil Sinha of Los Alamos, N.M. He developed a technique that could measure the temperature, density, and viscosity of a liquid by monitoring the effect of ultrasonic waves on bubbles in the fluid. For his physics project, Sinha designed and cobbled together prototype equipment costing about $100. A version of this sensor could be used in chemical, environmental, food-processing, and medical applications, he notes.

Nina Vasan, 18, of Parkersburg, W.Va., earned honors for a behavioral sciences research project that compared how quickly and effectively people learn using images versus written words.

Alexander C. Mittal, 17, of Greenwich, Conn., won for research that demonstrated a method of using DNA and a related chemical to assemble extremely small electronic components. The technique may give scientists an inexpensive way to fabricate electronic devices that are much smaller than those made today and could therefore operate at higher speeds. Like Sinha and 17 percent of the other students at this year’s ISEF, Mittal has applied for a patent on his research.

“The Intel ISEF students exemplify what our countries and businesses need in tomorrow’s workforce: students who excel in science and math,” said Craig Barrett, chief executive officer of the Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel Corp. “These young people will go on to become tomorrow’s science and technology pioneers, delivering ideas and inventions that will fuel the global economy.”

Two teams of students won trips to present their research in further competitions. Laurie-Anne Daniele Haller, 17, and Upton Au, 16, of Manhasset, N.Y., investigated ways to increase crop yields. They will compete this September in Vienna at a European Union contest for young scientists. Brendan Joseph Quinn and Enda Young, 19-year-olds from Maghera, Northern Ireland, developed a self-propelled robot that rides high-voltage power lines to scare birds away, thereby protecting areas beneath the wires from the birds’ droppings. In July, the pair will vie for more honors at a science expo in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Top winners in other ISEF categories received $5,000 scholarships and earned $1,000 grants for their high schools. Those categories and winners are: biochemistry, Debarshi Mustafi, 17, of Chicago; botany, Kevin Kuan Gao, 17, of Austin, Texas; computer science, Ezra Jacob Rapaport, 18, of New York; Earth and space sciences, Sabrina Curie Snell, 16, of Washington, D.C.; engineering, Mordechai Joseph Bronner, 18, of Lawrence, N.Y.; environmental sciences, Vijay Yanamadala, 15, of Rolling Hills Estates, Calif.; gerontology, Swalpa Udit, 16, of Humboldt, Neb.; mathematics, Jacob Licht, 17, of West Hartford, Conn.; medicine and health, Eva Lily Vertes, 17, of Dundas, Ontario; microbiology, Maria Elena De Obaldia, 15, of Moorestown, N.J.; zoology, Mingzhi Qu, 16, of Shanghai, China.

Science Service, the publisher of Science News, has administered the ISEF competition since its inception in 1950. This year marks Intel’s sixth year of sponsoring the contest.

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