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Teens take home science gold at Intel ISEF

Self-driving vehicles, battery alternatives and analyses of galaxy clusters claim top prizes at global high school science competition

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PHOENIX — Hate driving your car when you could be a passenger? A self-driving vehicle that one day could chauffer human occupants around town brought its inventor, a 19-year-old Romanian computer scientist, the top prize — and $75,000 — this week at the world’s premier high school research competition.

Ionut Budisteanu, a student at Liceul Tehnologic Oltchim in Ramnicu Valcea, Romania, was the big winner at the 2013 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, or Intel ISEF. He was one of three young researchers who each walked away with prizes worth more than $50,000.

Society for Science & the Public, which publishes Science News, created the fair in 1950 and still runs it. More than one-third of the roughly 1,600 Intel ISEF finalists received awards on May 17 totaling more than $4 million.

The annual science competition attracts some of the world’s most talented young scientists. This year’s finalists were selected from the winners of science fairs in more than 70 countries, regions and territories. Almost 30 percent of the finalists either have a patent on their work or intend to apply for one.

“This competition encourages millions of students worldwide every year to explore their passion for math and science while developing solutions for global challenges,” said Wendy Hawkins, the executive director of the Intel Foundation.

The competition’s $75,000 top cash prize is named for Gordon E. Moore, Intel’s cofounder. Budisteanu received this award for designing software to pilot a low-cost, self-navigating vehicle. Such a car could reduce fatal auto accidents, 90 percent of which are caused by human error.

The teen’s design relies on Internet-linked cameras, or webcams, to detect people, other cars and large objects such as trees. An onboard 3-D laser radar measures distance to those objects. The software uses that information to adjust the speed of the vehicle.

Onboard software also helps recognize road signs, lane markers, traffic lanes and curbs. The software adds any newly encountered features to a database that would be available to all cars connected to the Internet.

Two other young researchers each won Intel Foundation Young Scientist Awards of $50,000.

Eesha Khare, 18, of Saratoga, Calif., picked up one for designing and building a supercapacitor, a device to store electrical energy. The single electrode in Khare’s device has a core of hydrogen-doped titanium dioxide nanostructures. A flexible, plasticlike polymer surrounds that core. Her novel device can charge up very quickly.

It also can store almost three times as much electrical energy as previous capacitors. And unlike previous capacitors, it stores that energy in a tiny volume, one comparable to a battery’s. Her new device also holds a charge far longer than batteries do.

The other $50,000 award went to Henry Wanjune Lin, 17, of Shreveport, La., for modeling the behavior of distant galaxies. Galaxies, the huge collections of stars that are bound by gravity and move as a unit, often occur in clusters. Lin compared his mathematical predictions about galaxy clusters with what astronomers have observed using telescopes.

He found that the scientists are slightly more likely to find a particular type of cluster: one with galaxies that have cooler-than-usual temperatures at their core. But overall, the teen confirmed, the way astronomers have been surveying clustered galaxies works well.

Seventeen students won “best of category” awards, each worth $5,000. Budisteanu’s project claimed top honors among computer science projects, Khare conquered the chemistry category and Lin won the day in the physics-and-astronomy group.

Other first-place category winners include:

For animal sciences, Michael Shao, 16, of Northville, Mich. He won for showing how a worm responds to cold temperatures. The worm, C. elegans, has a simple nervous system often used as a model for the human nervous system. Shao studied the worm at temperatures between 4° and 20° Celsius. His findings may help scientists design treatments that help people better withstand the cold.

In behavioral and social sciences, Zarin Rahman, 16, of Brookings, S.D. She showed that stressful experiences such as getting too little sleep or watching too much TV impair a teen’s mood and memory.

In earth and planetary sciences, Gyou Tanaka, 16, of Mobara, Japan. He dug up small seashells from several layers of dirt at a site southeast of Tokyo. His goal: to understand the environment of 300,000 years ago. He found that this region had been part of the Pacific seafloor. Water depths at the time were somewhere between 10 and 30 meters, he reported.

In electrical and mechanical engineering, Zeyu Liu, 17, of Calgary, Alberta, in Canada. He designed a device that minimizes friction in systems used to store energy in large rotating wheels. The device uses several types of magnets to lift a wheel and make it float in a stable position.

In environmental sciences, Naomi Shah, 17, of Portland, Ore. She created an air filter that includes natural materials such as peat, mulch and live plants. In tests, the filter reduced some harmful chemicals in indoor air by as much as 24 percent. Her filter also cut the number of small pollution particles in the air by 18 percent. Indoor air pollution contributes to nearly 2 million deaths across the globe each year, she noted.

In mathematical sciences, Vinay Iyengar, 17, of Portland, Ore. He developed new techniques to efficiently create secret codes. He showed that the new methods work much better than current code-making schemes. But, he warns, the same techniques can break codes, as well.

In medicine and health, Jessie MacAlpine, 17, of Woodstock, Canada. She demonstrated that people consuming mustard oil, a simple cooking oil, can help slow the spread of malaria. In her tests, ingesting the oil slowed by 94 percent the growth of parasites that spread malaria. The cost of the amount of oil a person would need to take each day costs about one-millionth as much as currently used antimalaria drugs.

In microbiology, David Zimmerman, 18, of Los Angeles, Calif. He studied a microbe often used in battery-like fuel cells. Until now, it has been difficult to genetically alter the microbe to make it more useful. But this teen developed a way. Scientists can use his techniques to change the genetic code in other difficult-to-modify microbes, he suggested.

In biochemistry, Savannah Tobin, 18, of Salem, Ore. She found a way to measure a particular chemical in cat saliva that can cause allergies in people. Unlike previous tests, which required veterinarians to take blood samples, her test is inexpensive and quick.

In cellular and molecular biology, Hannah Wastyk, 17, of Palmyra, Pa. She developed a promising treatment for melanoma, a particularly deadly form of cancer. The treatment kills a large proportion of cancer cells but doesn’t affect most healthy cells.

In materials and bioengineering, Samantha Marquez, 17, of Midlothian, Va. Using bacteria and algae, she created hollow shells of cells. These living capsules could be injected into patients to deliver drugs, she said. They could also serve as miniature containers for a variety of lab tests. 

In energy and transportation, Evie Sobczak, 16, of St. Petersburg, Fla. She found a way to grow algae and then break them down to extract their oil, which could be used as fuel. Compared to existing methods, her techniques boosted oil production by up to 20 percent. This might help make biofuels more economical, she said.

In environmental management, Shixuan Li, 15, of Lynn Haven, Fla. He created an efficient way to extract an antioxidant from shrimp shells. One kilogram of this substance, astaxanthin, sells for about $6,000. The shells he used are typically thrown away as waste.

In plant sciences, Samantha DiSalvo, Ryan Kenny and Amy Vitha of Hewlett, N.Y. They probed how plants respond to, and sometimes resist, bacterial infections. These processes haven’t previously been studied in detail at the molecular level, the students said.

In addition to their “best of category” awards, Tobin, Wastyk and Zimmerman received the Dudley R. Herschbach Stockholm International Youth Science Seminar award. Herschbach, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, is the former chairman of Society for Science & the Public. The award includes a trip to Stockholm this December, where the teens will attend the Nobel Prize ceremonies.

Li, Marquez and Sobczak each also won a behind-the-scenes visit to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. During their trip, they will also visit scientists at Caltech to discuss their Intel ISEF research projects.

Kenny, DiSalvo and Vitha will also participate in the London International Youth Science Forum this summer. The annual two-week program hosts 300 young scientists from more than 50 nations.

Second- through fourth-place winners in each of the 17 categories received cash awards of up to $1,500. Additional awards from the Intel ISEF competition included college scholarships, medals and paid summer internships.

“As this competition gets bigger, students not previously involved in such competitions can realize that independent research is both possible and rewarding,” says Elizabeth Marincola, president of Society for Science & the Public.

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