Teens win big at science competition

Top prizes awarded in 2012 Intel Science Talent Search

WASHINGTON — Nithin Tumma captains his high school’s robotics team and plays tennis. But it’s his work to understand the wily ways of cancer that has made him a champion. For figuring out how a protein helps cancer evolve and hide from the body’s immune system, Tumma, 17, won first place in the 2012 Intel Science Talent Search. Tumma, who lives in Fort Gratiot, Mich., received a $100,000 award from the Intel Foundation at a black-tie gala held March 13 in Washington, D.C.

BIG WINS Picked from 40 finalists during the 2012 Intel Science Talent Search, teen scientists (from left to right) Andrey Sushko, Nithin Tumma and Mimi Yen show off their awards alongside Intel President and CEO Paul Otellini. Intel STS, Chris Ayers Photography

The event honored this year’s 40 finalists, who distinguished themselves from more than 1,800 entries. The budding scientists hailed from 16 states and split $630,000 in awards. One of the nation’s longest running precollege science competitions, the Intel Science Talent Search has been administered by Society for Science & the Public, which publishes Science News, since 1942.

“There are 40 individuals here who prove we still have the capability in this country to cultivate the next generation of innovators, thinkers, scientists and entrepreneurs,” Intel President and CEO Paul Otellini told the students at the gala. “I’m keenly looking forward to watching you make wonderful things happen in the coming years.”

Second place went to Andrey Sushko, 17, of Richland, Wash., who took home a $75,000 award. He created a tiny motor, only 7 millimeters across, powered by the surface tension of water. A coating of water-repellent material made this unusual alternative form of energy possible.

Mimi Yen, 17, of Brooklyn, N.Y., won third place and $50,000 for identifying a gene that causes some worms to behave strangely. Males with a mutant form of this gene attach globs of mucus to each other’s orifices, a behavior that’s usually reserved for impregnating the hermaphrodites of the species. 

Fourth place and $40,000 went to David Ding, 18, of Albany, Calif., who studied a branch of mathematics called Cherednik algebras. Benjamin Van Doren, 18, of White Plains, N.Y., won fifth place and a $30,000 award for showing that birds migrating in autumn get their bearings during the morning and tend to fly into the wind. The sixth place award of $25,000 went to Neel Patel, 17, of Geneva, Fla., for a device that uses sounds instead of pictures to convey information.

Coming in seventh was Anirudh Prabhu, 17, of West Lafayette, Ind., who received $25,000 for demonstrating that odd perfect numbers, which equal the sum of every number they can be cleanly divided by, have a lower limit.

Eighth through 10th places, which each come with a $20,000 award, went to: Clara Fannjiang, 17, of Davis, Calif., for her work on creating images of celestial bodies that give off radio waves; Alissa Zhang, 17, of Saratoga, Calif., who explored three different ways to monitor blood glucose levels using light instead of needles; and Jordan Cotler, 17, of Northbrook, Ill., who developed a new way to send encrypted messages using quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of special relativity.

Walter Isaacson, journalist and biographer, encouraged the finalists to follow the advice of the late Steve Jobs: “‘Stay hungry, stay foolish,'” Isaacson said, paraphrasing the subject of his most recent biography. “The people who are crazy enough to change the world are the ones who do.”

The other 30 finalists will each receive $7,500. All of the competitors have now joined an exclusive club of Science Talent Search alumni that includes seven Nobel laureates, four National Medal of Science winners, 11 MacArthur Fellows and Brian Greene, a string theorist and author who visited with students at a dinner on March 9.

“This is one of the most interesting groups of people I have ever met,” said Marian Bechtel, 17, of Lancaster, Pa. “Only at a science fair do you get total strangers to bond within seconds about quantum mechanics and multivariable calculus.” Bechtel was chosen by this year’s finalists for the Glenn T. Seaborg award. The award is given in honor of the late Nobel Prize winner, former Science Talent Search judge and longtime chairman of the board of trustees of what’s now Society for Science & the Public. During a visit to Washington, D.C., Bechtel and her peers presented their research to the public (SN: 3/12/12), met with representatives from their home states and were personally congratulated by President Obama at the White House.

Elizabeth Marincola, president of Society for Science & the Public and publisher of Science News, reminded the exceptional teens of the value of bringing a scientific mindset to all their endeavors. “My hope,” she said, “is that each of you will look up, reach out and always use your science as a vehicle for good in this world.”

More Stories from Science News on Humans