His finalist year: 1992
His finalist project: Teaching a computer to simulate how insects might learn to walk
What led to the project: Ben Raphael was "very into artificial intelligence" and robots in general as a child. But rather than becoming obsessed with Isaac Asimov novels as many kids do, "I was more science nerd than a science fiction nerd," he says. He read as much as he could about neural networks—basically, complex computer programs that simulate how the brain and nervous systems solve problems. He learned to program the computer his parents bought for their Fairfax, Va., home in the early 1980s and, as a student at Paul VI Catholic High School, decided to do a science project that showed what these machines could do.
His plan? To build a computer neural network that would simulate how a population of insects would develop the ability to walk. "My idea—kind of naively as a high school student—was, if we want to teach robots to walk, how does it really happen in nature?" he says. He studied the literature to learn how two- and four-legged animals strut and gallop, then looked at six-legged creatures.
When he plugged equations describing how animals walk into his computer, and gave the insects with the ability to walk the farthest the ability to survive to reproduce, over generations the insects' legs became more controlled and synchronized. The software allowed users to watch the process on the screen. Given the state of graphics more than 15 years ago, "I'm sure it would look cooler now," he says, but the program was good enough to earn him a finalist spot in the 1992 Westinghouse Science Talent Search.
The effect on his career: Many Westinghouse and Intel finalists end up doing work completely different from their projects. Not Raphael, who wound up building computer models of biological processes as a career.
He didn't start doing that right away, however. Raphael went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1992, planning to be a computer science major. He also took a lot of biology courses, but along the way he discovered that he really enjoyed math. He majored in the subject, and then went to the University of California, San Diego, for math graduate school, writing his thesis on a problem in operator theory, the field of mathematics used in quantum mechanics.
But as he was nearing graduation in 2002, he suddenly saw a problem with theoretical math itself. At some point, you're solving problems that "half a dozen people in the world really understand what they are or appreciate them—if you're lucky," he says. He decided he wanted to do something more people could understand. The question was, what?
Fortunately, around this time, U.C. San Diego had started a program in bioinformatics, which uses computers and information technology to solve biology problems. Raphael took one of the first graduate courses offered, and "got really excited about it." He wound up doing a postdoc in the program under Pavel Pevzner, the director of San Diego's Center for Algorithmic and Systems Biology.
"He was quite unusual," Pevzner says of Raphael. "He came to me without any knowledge of bioinformatics. But he was very smart, and that makes a big difference." While at San Diego, Raphael undertook some of the first major research into figuring out what changes in the human genome lead to cancer, Pevzner says. It's not an easy question to answer, but Raphael's math background made him well suited to make progress. He's since published studies in Genome Research, Bioinformatics and elsewhere. Since then, Pevzner jokes, he's "gotten fond of hiring mathematicians," making them into bioinformaticians, and "turning them two years later into stars."
What he's doing now: Raphael accepted a faculty position in Brown University's Computer Science department in 2006. He continues to analyze genome sequences, looking at how genomes change during evolution. Much of his best known work is about the genetics of cancer, but he also studies the genetic changes involved in evolution. For instance, can we pinpoint where and when humans and chimpanzees diverged? As knowledge of genetics grows, new questions keep popping up. "Certainly during my career, I have no fear that there's going to be a lack of interesting problems," Raphael says.