Top of the Top 40: Search tool for a cancer cure places first in national science competition

Inspired by his grandmother’s battle with cancer, Herbert Mason Hedberg developed a new test that could rapidly identify tumor-fighting compounds. Remarkably, he accomplished this as a high school science project.

PROSPECTOR. First-prize winner Herbert Mason Hedberg created a test for new cancer drugs. S. Norcross

Hedberg, 17, of North Attleboro High School in Massachusetts claimed the top prize—a $100,000 scholarship—in this year’s Intel Science Talent Search. At an awards banquet in Washington, D.C., on March 16, he and 39 other students received recognition and funding for their further education.

Hedberg conceived of a novel approach to screening compounds that might inhibit telomerase, an enzyme that permits uncontrolled cell division in cancer. His method combines telomerase, prospective drugs, and fragments of DNA in a solution. If a compound inhibits telomerase, the DNA remains fragmented and absorbs ultraviolet light.

For research on mathematical patterns, Boris Alexeev, 17, of Cedar Shoals High School in Athens, Ga., won the second-place scholarship of $75,000. His project involved computational models called automata, which manipulate numbers to reveal underlying relationships.

The third-place honor and a $50,000 scholarship went to Ryna Karnik, 17, of Oregon Episcopal School in Portland for advances in making semiconductor microchips. Karnik’s method could save microchip designers time and money by enabling them to edit prototypes when they would otherwise need to make new chips.

Linda Brown Westrick, 18, of Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School in Richmond, Va., placed fourth for analyzing a recently defined mathematical operation that helps unveil the structure of whole numbers. Her research is currently featured in “MathTrek” at Deriving the Structure of Numbers.

Eduard Reznik, 17, and Jayne Frances Wolfson, 18, placed fifth and sixth. Reznik, of Ward Melville High School in East Setauket, N.Y., developed a method for finding exact solutions to a set of equations written by Albert Einstein. Those solutions, which astrophysicists usually approximate, reveal aspects of the inner workings of neutron stars. Wolfson, of Byram Hills High School in Armonk, N.Y., studied toddlers at play and described how children learn to treat one object as another in their imaginations. For their work, Westrick, Reznik, and Wolfson each received a $25,000 scholarship.

Another four award winners each collected $20,000. Qilei Hang, 18, of Allegany High School in Cumberland, Md., developed a method to determine how material in a conical stockpile can be most efficiently drawn through two points beneath the pile. Ann Chi, 17, of Terre Haute South Vigo High School in Indiana, studied atomic-scale phenomena involved in chemical reactions between ethane and the metal yttrium. Andrei Munteanu, 18, of Benjamin Banneker High School in Washington, D.C., constructed an algorithm for determining how close two celestial objects will come as they follow elliptical orbits around the same star. Gordon L. Su, 18, of Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., studied the effects of economic globalization on income distribution in China.

Each of the remaining 30 award winners received a $5,000 scholarship, and all 40 got a notebook computer from the contest’s sponsor, Intel Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif. Craig Barrett, Intel’s chief executive, praised the “exceptional young scientists [for] producing the kind of innovative thinking and solid results that this country absolutely must have.”

Science Service, the publisher of Science News, administered the competition. This year’s contest had a record-setting 1,652 entrants. Numerous past winners of the annual contest, which Westinghouse originally sponsored in 1942, later won Nobel prizes, Field medals, MacArthur Foundation fellowships, and other major awards.

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