High Stakes High School Science: Competitions Net Six-Figure Prizes

Top high school researchers walk away with $100,000 prizes in the 10th annual Siemens Competition

courtesy Siemens

NEW YORK—A new approach to stopping hospital infections. A framework for identifying genes critical to developing better cancer therapies. Those were the winning projects in the 10th annual Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology announced this morning at New York University in Manhattan. The Siemens Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the multinational technology company, gave away $500,000 in college scholarships to 18 top high school researchers for projects declared "superb" by physics Nobel laureate and lead judge Joseph Taylor.

"This competition is about what's good in our education system," says James Whaley, Siemens Foundation president, noting that the top winners all hail from public high schools. "These students will go on to do great things that will affect the lives of you, me and our children."

Wen Chyan, 17, a senior at the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science in Denton walked away with the $100,000 top prize in the individual competition for his role in developing a new method of creating antimicrobial coatings for stents, catheters and other medical devices. Such devices are leading culprits in the estimated two million annual U.S. hospital-acquired infections that lead to 100,000 deaths.

Chyan's mentor, Richard Timmons, a chemistry professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, had developed a new method of depositing hydrogels on materials. Chyan sought a practical application for this process. He discovered that depositing hydrogels on medical devices was an improvement over current technology, because it "is not limited to any one device," he says, and that the gels can be used to deliver a wide variety of antimicrobial agents, as well. He and his mentor are applying for a patent. As for winning $100,000? "Hopefully I can afford college after this!" he says.

Sajith Wickramasekara and Andrew Guo, both 17-year-old students at the North Carolina School of Science and Math in Durham, split the $100,000 team prize. Their project looked at potential methods for identifying specific genes that could be targeted to make tumors more receptive to cancer therapies. The students are fascinated by the idea of personalized medicine, Wickramasekara says. "It's our hope," he notes, "that one day someone will be able to walk into a clinic, have their DNA checked, and then have the oncologist say you should have this drug."

Guo credits going to a school with a math and science emphasis with "allowing us to take time to go and do research." That's a sentiment echoed by several other students who attended schools with research programs. Among them: Millburn High School in New Jersey, which produced $10,000 individual winner Hayden C. Metsky, 17, whose project improved computers' ability to translate phrases into different languages; and the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and Humanities in Muncie, Ind., (represented by Raphael-Joel Lim who, along with Mark Zhang of William P. Clements High School in Sugar Land, Tex., won $20,000 for their work on a theoretical math question involving the Tamari lattice, a concept which involves different ways of grouping different objects).

Many of the national finalists—who spent the weekend before the announcement enjoying Broadway shows and bowling in between grueling judging rounds—have devoted hundreds of hours to their projects over the past three years. Research programs and math/science-specialized high schools often let students accelerate their course work as well as carve out blocks of time to meet with mentors and run experiments in labs on nearby college campuses. The growth of big money prizes for high school research—offered by Siemens, the Intel Science Talent Search (up to $100,000; read more about past finalists), and the Reno, Nev.–based Davidson Institute for Talent Development (up to $50,000)—has sparked interest in creating such research programs around the country.

The Siemens Competition, though younger than the Intel Science Talent Search (which carries the mantle of the old Westinghouse Science Talent Search, founded in 1941), is rapidly gaining a following, because it's the only major high school competition that allows students to compete in teams.

That's important because "a lot of science is in teams," says Erika Debenedictis, 16, who along with Duanni ("Tony") Huang, 17, both from Albuquerque, N.M., won $40,000 in the team competition for their work developing a method for doing elaborate simulations on personal (rather than super) computers. Few scientific journal articles these days feature only one author. The Siemens Competition is a "much better representation of what actually happens in the real world," says Huang.

Because the Siemens Competition allows for team entries, the possibility exists that sibling pairs could make it to the final rounds. Though that didn't happen this year, it did in 2006, when Lucia and Philip Mocz of Mililani, Hawaii, won $50,000 for their project on computer-aided cancer identification, when he was a junior and she was a sophomore. Westinghouse/Intel has produced 23 sibling pair finalists over the years—though usually in different years and on different projects.

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