The United States may not be at the top of the world’s rankings when it comes to test results for high school students, but that does not mean they are without talent.
That was evident this month when Washington hosted the finalists in an annual competition for young scientists, sponsored by a foundation set up by technology company Intel.
One year ago, 1,794 American high school students submitted research projects to the Intel Science Talent Search. The top 40 students came to Washington to compete for the top prize of $100,000.
Each of them presented a solution to a single difficult problem - from cancer and mathematics to ecology.
New ways to answer old questions
Kevin Lee, from Irvine, California, developed a mathematical model for correlating electrical signals from the heart with cardiac arrhythmia, which he hopes will contribute to better understanding of this sometimes fatal condition.
“If we can design a drug that’s better and that’s based on improved understanding on what’s going on in the heart," he explained, "then we can reduce side effects and make better drugs,” he said.
Kevin went on to win the second prize of $75,000.
17-year-old senior Angela Kong, from San Jose, California, looked at so-called cancer stem cells that successfully evade treatment. She said she wanted to discover the underlying mechanisms that cause them to go inactive. That understanding would allow scientists to better target them with current drugs. She added, "In terms of long-term implications, [we could] potentially target breast cancer better.”
Some competitors chose to focus on the social sciences.
Zarin Rahman, from Brookings, South Dakota, wanted to find a new way to quantify the effects of self-induced stressors. “I specifically looked at how teenagers use their cell phones and their computers and how that had a negative effect on their performance in school,” she said.
Zarin won 7th place in the competition and received $25,000.
The top prize went to Eric Chen, from San Diego, who received $100,000 for his research about a new class of drugs for better control of influenza during pandemics.
Launching pad for future scientists
The Science Talent Search began in 1942, as the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. It is the oldest and most prestigious high school science competition in the U.S. The Intel Foundation took over sponsorship in 1998, gradually increasing the awards fund. It reached $1.25 million this year.
The foundation's Executive Director, Wendy Hawkins, said it was a good investment. “We depend on the next generation of innovators, the people who will design new devices, the new techniques, the new scientific discoveries and we need to foster that kind of creativity and innovation,” said Hawkins.
Indeed, she said, many finalists have gone on to win even bigger awards.
“Eight of them have become Nobel laureates, a number have become senior members of the National Institutes of Health, the national academies of science, we have MacArthur Genius awards and we even have one Academy Award winner for best actress,” she said with a laugh.