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His finalist year: 1981
His finalist project: Designing a cheaper, more powerful solar panel
What led to the project: As a kid growing up in Omaha, Neb., John Geppert had two main interests: engineering, and international economics and development. His high school French teacher's husband, a political scientist, helped him see the connection between both fields: Many problems in developing countries, he noted, require low-cost engineering solutions.
In particular, Geppert became fascinated by how to produce cheap solar power. When he was a teenager in the late 1970s, the world was going through an oil crisis, so the sun was suddenly enjoying a turn as the energy source of the future. (A passing fancy that strikes, he notes, "every time oil prices spike.") Geppert surveyed the current technology and discovered that cheap, fixed solar panels only caught the sun during certain hours. Moveable panels could be made to catch the sun from different angles, but these systems were far more expensive.
So he decided to develop a panel with a shape that could capture rays as the sun made its daily track across the sky. "It was lots of tinkering," he says, to come up with the shape, but eventually he lit upon an elongated C that seemed to do the trick. He entered the project in the 1981 Westinghouse Science Talent Search, alongside projects that were "off-the-charts amazing," he says. "Mine was more of something I did in my backyard." It won him, however, a finalist spot and, that same year, a patent on the design.
The effect on his career: Geppert used his Westinghouse scholarship money to enroll as an engineering student at Washington University in Saint Louis. Because he had taken lots of college courses as a high school student, he was able to enroll as a sophomore. However, by his senior year, he realized that he wanted to study economics and finance rather than engineering. Because his scholarship was for engineering, he had to transfer to a more affordable school, and wound up at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, graduating in 1984.
He then earned his PhD in economics at Purdue University, looking at whether government intervention can stabilize the stock market—a question many people asked when the market crashed in 1987, right in the middle of his PhD program, and a topic that has regained its relevance. As more of a free market guy, Geppert says he doesn't like to admit it, but his research shows that when done right, changes in the money supply (expanded or contracted by the Federal Reserve), in government purchases, and tax revenues (up or down, depending on the situation) can have a stabilizing effect.
Around the time he was finishing in 1989, a faculty position opened up at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (U.N.L.) in the finance department. He applied and got the spot.
What he's doing now: Twenty years later, Geppert is still working and teaching in Lincoln. His main research looks at developing better hedging strategies—that is, methods of reducing one’s exposure to fluctuations in the price of an asset—particularly for commodities such as petroleum and heating oil. He also studies the changing conditions that make asset price swings either totally unpredictable, follow a trend (continue on their current course), or reverse themselves.