His finalist year: 1997
His finalist project: Measuring fluorescence to determine the structure of proteins
What led to the project: As a kid, New York City native Carl Bialik always loved science and math. So, when an opportunity came via a family friend to work in a biophysics lab at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine during his sophomore year at The Bronx High School of Science, he leapt at the chance. Under the direction of mentor Bill Laws, Bialik and others in the lab used a technique, involving lasers, to excite molecules and make them glow. Measuring this fluorescence allowed them to understand different properties of the molecules' structure, such as which parts might be rotating or standing still.
Bialik's project focused on proteins. He came up with a way to help interpret the data, which Laws (now at the University of Montana–Missoula), he says, took to calling "Carl’s Parameter." Laws's designation, noted most crucially in Bialik's recommendation letters for the 1997 Westinghouse Science Talent Search, proved to be a good hook—it helped him land a finalist spot.
The effect on his career: His Mount Sinai experience—and the Westinghouse recognition—certainly whetted Bialik's appetite for learning more about physics. "I enjoyed the research experience and thought it might be what I wanted to do with my career," he says. He went to Yale University and majored in physics and math.
But, although Bialik enjoyed lab work, it wasn't his only passion. In high school, he'd worked for his school newspaper, and at Yale, he started covering sports, technology and other topics for The Yale Herald, a weekly student publication, in his spare time. By the end of his college career, "I was probably spending more time working on the school paper than on any particular math or physics project," he says. Writing "didn't come as naturally as math used to," but it seemed to hold more of a future for him.
So he decided to pursue a career in journalism. He went to Uganda shortly after graduation with a friend in order to freelance, perhaps forging a career as a foreign correspondent. Unfortunately, the demand for articles about Uganda wasn't very brisk. So he returned to New York City where, in winter 2002, he landed a job as a copy editor at The Wall Street Journal (WSJ). (He's not the only finalist to land at the paper: 1999 Intel finalist Keith Winstein has been there since 2007.)
What he's doing now: Bialik transitioned from copyediting to covering technology and other subjects for the WSJ. Then, in early 2005 William Grueskin, who later became a deputy managing editor, tapped him to write a column and blog about the use and misuse of numbers in daily life. "We knew that he had a tremendous interest and—for a newsroom—an unusual ability in math," says Grueskin, now the dean of academic affairs at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He also knew that "there are a lot of really bad numbers out there" which, when quoted, give ideas more authority than they deserve. So it seemed like a great match. The column (and blog), which came to be called "The Numbers Guy," seeks out and exposes fishy statistics, whenever they rear their misleading heads.