Her finalist year: 1972
Her finalist project: Figuring out how pollution can affect plants
What led to the project: Nina Schor was always a curious kid. "I guess what I liked most about science, and what drew me to it at a very young age, was the spirit of inquiry," she says. "I liked the notion that you never knew enough. Every answer raised five or 10 questions."
At Benjamin Cardozo High School in New York City, Schor became interested in how aldehydes—chemical compounds often present in car exhaust—affect respiration in animals as well as photosynthesis, the process by which plants turn light into usable energy.
So with an eye toward the Westinghouse competition, she designed an experiment in which she exposed single-cell plants to aldehydes of various kinds. Whereas these days most finalists in national science fairs or talent searches do their experiments in the laboratories of professional scientists, "not only was that not the case when I was part of the competition, it was pretty heavily frowned upon," she says. Schor did all the experiments in her high school lab or at home, once even loading some of the school's equipment into her mom's car so she could run experiments over winter break.
Her efforts allowed her to discover that single-cell plants that were exposed to aldehydes did end up with less chlorophyll—the green pigment in plants that absorbs light and plays a key role in photosynthesis.
Schor entered her results in the 1972 Westinghouse competition and won first prize. It was the first time since boys and girls began competing against one another in 1949 that a girl had come out on top.
The effect on her career: 1972 was a heady time for the women's movement—Ms. Magazine had recently launched—and consequently Schor was a hot interview subject. "I got phone calls for months and months from newspapers that I had never heard of from all around the county," she says. "It was unbelievable. The phone literally rang off the hook." She wasn't comfortable being a poster girl for women's achievements in science. "I still bristle when I think of some of the questions I got asked," she says—particularly those about whether she had to be smarter than boys to get the top slot, and those implying the opposite—that the judges had felt pressured to choose a girl for the first prize.
She went to Yale University to study molecular biophysics and biochemistry. Then she went to Weill Cornel Medical College in Manhattan and also earned a PhD from The Rockefeller University nearby. She ultimately decided to become a pediatric neurologist—both because she loved kids, and because the nervous system and the brain presented so many unknown open areas for discovery, where every answer really did lead to 10 more questions.
What she's doing now: "My approach has been the same from the get-go," Schor says, namely figuring out why and how things go wrong with the hope that you might then figure out how to make them right. She's the chair of pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center, where she studies neuroblastoma (a tumor of the nervous system in children) and neurodegenerative disorders. "They're two sides of exactly the same coin," she says. In degenerative disorders, too many cells are dying, whereas with cancers, some cells refuse to die.
She's particularly well known for her cancer work. "Neuroblastoma is one of the most common tumors of childhood and therefore it demands attention," says Michael Painter, a pediatric neurologist who recruited Schor to her previous position at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. The current approaches to the tumor are less than ideal, he says. What Schor has shown, he notes, is that not all tumors are the same, and that treating different children will require different approaches. "What she has done is to identify predictors of response to given chemotherapies," he says. If you know through a tumor biopsy that one therapy is more likely to work than another, you can start with the one that's more likely to work, and hopefully reduce the doses of highly toxic drugs.
Although she's one of relatively few female heads of an academic medical department, and her research has been widely published, Schor still isn't entirely comfortable with being a poster girl for women in science. But she does stay involved with the current incarnation of the contest that first gave her that poster girl status: She gave a keynote address to all the Intel Science Talent Search finalists in Washington, D.C., in 2004.