Students win big at Intel ISEF 2010

Quantum dots, quantum computing and computing algorithm take top prizes at global high school science competition

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Quantum is so hot right now. At this year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, two of the top three awards went to young scientists with projects related to the realm of weird physics.

At the conclusion of the weeklong high school science competition, projects on cancer-fighting quantum dots, quantum computer algorithms and computer programming claimed the highest honors. In all, nearly a third of the entered projects were honored during the May 14 ceremony at the 2010 Intel ISEF, a program of Society for Science & the Public. Winners received cash awards ranging from $500 to the top prize of $75,000; other prizes ranged from field trips to officially naming an asteroid for the recipient.

The annual event attracts some of the world’s best and brightest young scientists, representing more than 50 nations. The 1,611 students who attended this year also won the respect and admiration of Nobel laureates, scientific judges and the general public.

SCIENCE STARS On May 14, 2010, Amy Chyao (center), Kevin Ellis (left) and Yale Fan earned top honors at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair 2010, the world’s largest pre-college science competition. Chyao, 15, of Richardson, Texas, received $75,000 and the Gordon E. Moore Award, given for the first time in honor of the Intel cofounder and retired chairman and CEO. Ellis, 18, of Vancouver, Wash., and Fan, 18, of Beaverton, Ore., each received $50,000. (photo credit: Chris Ayers/Intel) Chris Ayers/Intel

“As a group, you are a force for profound good,” Elizabeth Marincola told the finalists. President of the Society for Science & the Public and publisher of Science News, Marincola pointed out that although some students left without prizes, “your passion, competence and dedication make you all winners.”

This year’s new top prize, the $75,000 Gordon E. Moore award, went to Amy Cindy Chyao of Richardson, Texas. In an extensive set of experiments, Chyao created a new cancer-fighting drug based on microscopic quantum dots.

Through a series of chemical reactions, Chyao attached quantum dots to titanium dioxide nanotubes (the dots are akin to tiny ants on a nanotube log about 10,000 times the size of a human hair). On their own, the nanotubes can produce a toxic, unstable form of oxygen when hit with high-energy light, such as UV rays. Since cancer cells tend to slurp up more nanoparticles than do noncancerous cells, the malignancy is targeted by the cell-killing toxicity. But UV light itself can cause the kind of damage that leads to cancer.

In a quest for a safer alternative, Chyao affixed lead sulfide quantum dots to the nanotubes, which changed the type of light required to activate them. She showed that less damaging near-infrared light could be used to produce the toxic oxygen. When Chyao saw the results of the assay confirming that her design worked, “I was extremely excited,” she says.

The top prize winner’s project almost didn’t make it to the fair. Chyao put the finishing touches on her study three days before the fair started, she says. In the melee of packing and leaving for the airport, her poster was left at home. Her father — in an act of parental heroism not soon to be forgotten — drove the hour back to the house and dashed back to the airport just in time to catch the flight to San Jose, Calif.

Chyao will be doing a summer internship at the University of Texas at Dallas, where she will continue the project by testing her drug’s effects on cancer cells.

Yale Wang Fan of Beaverton, Ore., received Intel’s Young Scientist Award, totaling $50,000, for his project on how quantum computers can quickly solve “some of the hardest problems in computer science,” he says. These include searching giant databases quickly, solving major problems in statistics and encrypting data. Fan mathematically showed that a type of algorithm (nonlinear adiabatic quantum algorithms, for the curious) can outperform existing methods. Fan developed an algorithm that doesn’t require a specific kind of quantum computer and can be generalized to any kind of physical system, he says.

Fan got interested in quantum mechanics in eighth grade, and began reading books and research papers before he developed his own projects.

Kevin Michael Ellis of Vancouver, Wash., also received Intel’s Young Scientist Award of $50,000. Ellis designed a new tool that may help computers run faster by spreading the work among multiple microprocessors. A process called parallel programming “splits up the work and it goes twice as fast,” Ellis says.

With today’s technology, individual microprocessors can’t be made to go faster, “or they’d melt,” Ellis says. So instead, most computers have two to four microprocessors. But divvying up the tasks among microprocessors must still be programmed by hand. “My tool automates that process,” he says.

Ellis created a program called Dyn that automatically decides what to split up and how to do it. Unlike other parallelism techniques, Dyn requires no manual work, and its performance doesn’t suffer as the task size increases. Ellis put Dyn through its paces on intense applications such as physics simulations, 3-D computations and artificial intelligence problems. He then compared its performance to what a human programmer could do by hand. Dyn performed almost as well as a human programmer, he found.

Three other students won Seaborg SIYSS Awards, named for the late chemist Glenn T. Seaborg, a Nobel laureate who chaired the board of Society for Science & the Public. Seaborg SIYSS Awards come with a paid trip to the Stockholm International Youth Science Seminar in Sweden and admission to the Nobel Prize ceremonies.

James Sinclair Popper of Swindon, England, won a Seaborg for his project on CookerSmart, a new kind of fire alarm that detects flames in the kitchen. Unlike normal fire alarms, which go off when they detect smoke, CookerSmart detect fires by the infrared flicker of flames. This method reduces the likelihood of false alarms (and reduces the likelihood of people removing the batteries to quiet the nuisance).

Seaborg Prize winner Joshua William Pfeffer of Plainview, N.Y., presented a new mathematical twist on a well-known theorem. Pfeffer defined an analogue to the Ricci flow, an equation that smoothes out a mathematical object’s irregularities while preserving its fundamental features. Ricci flows were used by Grigori Perelman to prove the famous Poincaré conjecture in 2002. Pfeffer created his own flow on an object called a supermanifold.

The third Seaborg prize went to Jong Hyuck Won of McLean, Va., for a study on how prostate cancer cells become resistant to the commonly used chemotherapy drug cisplatin (brand name Platinol). Won described details of two new ways that cancer cells can become resistant to the drug. What’s more, additional studies found that vitamin K3, or menadione, and a green tea antioxidant can suppress that resistance.

Akash Krishnan and Matthew Fernandez, both of Portland, Ore., won the European Union Contest for Young Scientists prize for their joint computer science project on the recognition and classification of emotions in recorded speech. The program was trained to recognize seven emotions, ranging from anxiety to boredom to happiness. In tests, the program performed with 77 percent accuracy, which is just slightly worse than the average person. Krishnan and Fernandez received an all-expense paid trip to Lisbon, Portugal, in September to participate in the European contest, a forum created to promote the ideas of cooperation and interchange between young scientists. The team also took the Intel ISEF Best of Category Award for team projects, which comes with an $8,000 prize.

In all, Intel ISEF Best of Category awards went to 19 categories, and winners also received an $8,000 prize. All winners of the top prizes also won in their categories. Second- and first-place category winners, who took home $1,500 and $3,000 respectively, also got the bonus of having an asteroid named in their honor, a gift from MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. (MIT’s Jenifer Brinker Evans stipulated that the asteroids would be far away in the main asteroid belt, so the winners didn’t need to worry about having their namesake destroy the Earth.) In all, 602 students took home prizes.

For many students, the awards represented the culmination of many hours of hard work. “It’s been a very exciting day,” said Ellis, just after he won Intel’s Young Scientist Award. Ellis had these words of advice for younger scientists: “Do what they really love. I would advise them to do things not because other people want them to, but because they think the end result would be really, really cool.”

For complete list of all winners, see

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

More Stories from Science News on Science & Society