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Young scientists win big in Washington

2012 Intel Science Talent Search recognizes the nation’s top high school researchers

When it comes to big awards — the Nobel Prizes, say, or even the Oscars — projects involving gooey worms rarely take home the prize. But the Intel Science Talent Search, or STS, a national science and engineering fair for high school seniors, is different. This year, the competition’s highest honors went to students exploring new treatments for breast cancer, developing ultra-small motors for robots and, yes, studying worms that smear mucus on each other.

Top winners Nithin Tumma, Andrey Sushko and Mimi Yen, all 17, joined 37 other finalists of the competition on stage March 13 at a packed gala held at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. At the end of the ceremony, hundreds of blue and white balloons fell from the ceiling, burying the students. But this flood of balloons wasn’t the students’ only prize. The 40 competitors – who studied everything from a type of math called Cherednik algebras to bird migrations and secret codes — will also take home a total of $630,000 in award money.

“I see that there are 40 individuals here who prove we still have the capacity in this country to cultivate the next generation of innovative thinkers, scientists and entrepreneurs,” Paul Otellini, president of the corporation Intel, which sponsors the Science Talent Search, said in a speech during the ceremony. The competition is run by Society for Science & the Public, the publisher of Science News for Kids.

This year, more than 1,800 high school seniors and other students on their way to college entered their research projects into the competition. Judges narrowed those competitors down to 300 semifinalists and, eventually, the 40 finalists.

That makes winning STS no small feat. Luckily, first-place finisher Nithin Tumma, who attends Port Huron Northern High School in Fort Gratiot, Mich., was up for the challenge. Tumma discovered that a single protein sitting in breast cancer cells plays a role in what turns these cells from bad to worse. When that happens, the diseased cells are able to escape the body’s own protections against cancer and spread from organ to organ.

So Tumma decided to shut that dangerous protein down, although just in cancer cells growing in Petri dishes. Once he did, the cells seemed to switch from nasty mode to a more tame state. And tamed tumors might be less likely to spread to other spots around the body, he said. Tumma, who would like to continue his research after high school, added that he’s attracted to work that can make life better for people: “At the end of the day, that’s what you want to do,” he said. He’ll be getting $100,000 for his work.

Second-place finisher Andrey Sushko, a student at Hanford High School in Richland, Wash., got his inspiration from a slightly different place: the bizarre physics of water. Specifically, how this universal liquid tends to curve upward at the edges of a glass, forming a surface called a meniscus. Sushko turns that physics into a tool that can give life to a floating motor that’s only 7 millimeters long, or about the length of a grain of rice. Using electric currents, Sushko changes how liquid in a small container curves around the motor. That bending pushes then pulls apart two bobbing components of the engine in a rhythmic beat. With the right equipment, Sushko suspects that this beat may be able to generate tiny pulses of power — just from the motion of water.

It’s a project that emerged from Sushko’s favorite hobby: building small, radio-controlled toy replicas of sailing yachts and other boats. He recently designed a model sailboat that weighs only 5 ounces, lighter than an empty soda can. Sushko, who will receive a $75,000 award, hopes that motors like his will one day power tiny robots.

Third-place finalist Mimi Yen works with similarly miniscule but living things — worms. She focused on the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans and its gross pastime. When males of this species are alone, they wriggle up to other worms and launch an attack: Using a type of mucus, they plug shut pores sitting on top of their friends’ heads. When Yen first learned about this behavior, she said she laughed “hysterically.”

But, then, Yen, of New York City’s Stuyvesant High School, got serious. This behavior is a lot more interesting than it sounds, she said. For instance, she discovered males don’t plug heads as much when they are around hermaphrodites — worms that are half-male and half-female. In this species, she explained, there are no females, only hermaphrodites. And these worms seem to ooze out chemicals that protect them from the males’ goo fights. She also brought scientists closer to finding the exact gene or genes that make these worms stuff each other with mucus.

Yen, who will receive a $50,000 award, said she’s not sure if she’s the first STS finalist to study mucus. But, she added: “It’s definitely the weirdest project I’ve ever heard of.”

That may put Yen in good company. In a speech during the event, her fellow finalist, Marian Bechtel, 17, said about all the young researchers: “This is one of the most interesting groups of people I have ever met.” Bechtel, a junior who’s about to graduate from Hempfield High School in Lancaster, Pa., pointed to the students’ “quirky talents.” Those included entertaining each other after hours by belting out classic Disney songs to the music of a ukulele.

Awards worth $20,000 to $40,000 were also given to students placing fourth through 10th in the competition. Their projects provided new insights into curious numbers called perfect numbers and how people can “read” information by listening to special noises. Other students developed new ways for astronomers to pull out more data from their telescopes and for doctors to better record the blood sugar of people with diabetes. The remaining finalists will receive awards of $7,500. (To read about their projects, click here.)

Elizabeth Marincola, president of Society for Science & the Public, gave some parting advice to these would-be musical performers: “My hope is that each of you will reach out and use your science as a vehicle for good in this world.” They’re certainly off to a good, if occasionally gross, start.

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