His finalist year: 1998

His finalist project: Building a model of how nerve cells function in people with an autoimmune disorder

What led to the project: When New York City native and Stuyvesant High School student Jesse Anttila-Hughes needed a Westinghouse project mentor, the school paired him with an applied mathematician at New York University who introduced him to the idea of modeling events through equations. Anttila-Hughes used a computer to construct a set of equations that described how neurotransmitters work in the body. He also wrote equations that showed how they functioned in people with myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune disease that causes muscle weakness, ticks and stuttering.

"It was the mathematical equivalent of a flow chart," he says. "There weren't any results"—but he discovered he liked mathematical modeling, and the project was good enough to win him a finalist spot in the 1998 Westinghouse Science Talent Search. (Intel took over the title sponsorship of the competition that year.)

The effect on his career: Looking back, "that was the beginning of my five-year-long flirtation with physics," Anttila-Hughes says. He liked mathematical modeling, and so physics seemed like a reasonable choice. He went to Harvard University and majored in the subject. But it didn't take long for him to discover that in physics, "all the fun simple stuff has already been done."

Meanwhile, though, he also took lots of foreign language courses. He'd studied Japanese at Stuyvesant and during college decided to pick up Chinese. After graduation he went to Peking University in Beijing to study Chinese more extensively. The SARS epidemic cut his time there short, and he returned to New York City in 2003.

He took a job doing statistical analysis for Citigroup and decided he really liked finance and economics, in addition to his international interests. Economics in particular featured much of the mathematical modeling he'd liked about physics—but there still seemed to be some low-hanging fruit lying around. Although he enjoyed his job, he ultimately decided that he wanted to work on more meaningful matters, he says, rather than on boosting corporate profits. So, eventually, he decided to go back to school. He took some time off to research programs that might combine all his interests.

What he's doing now: These days, Anttila-Hughes is a third-year PhD student in Columbia University's Sustainable Development program. The program—co-directed by Jeffrey Sachs, head of the school's Earth Institute, who writes Scientific American's Sustainable Developments column—combines economics, policy and the sciences.

Anttila-Hughes focuses on climate—particularly disasters and other discrete events. What fascinates him is "exploring how we approach disasters and how we think about predicting them." Over the years, human beings (at least in wealthy countries) have gotten quite good at predicting and preparing for certain disasters such as earthquakes. We also have good surveillance systems in place for epidemics. "We're definitely good at recurrent things, even if they're a big deal," he says. Slow-motion, multisymptom disasters such as global warming, on the other hand, are a different matter entirely.

Anttila-Hughes—and the Columbia program in general—pride themselves on putting their theories through the same rigorous testing that an academic economics or physics department would demand. "A lot of stuff that gets done under the heading of 'sustainable development' is rather embarrassing," he says. But "there's a lot of data out there" that can be used to test hypotheses. For instance, he recently found evidence that, in Ghana, when farmers experience partial crop failures (due to bad weather and other climate issues), they tend to pull their boys out of school to work in the fields. That was surprising, because the world pays more attention to families that pull girls out of school when times are tight. It also "provides evidence that economic concerns may trump cultural ones," he says. "Thus, it may make more sense to provide indexed crop insurance or something similar to prevent economic hardship rather than focus directly on enrollment if our goal is to improve educational outcomes."

Anttila-Hughes, however, doesn't just confine his arguments to the written word. On December 3, he took to the stage in the monthly Debate at Lolita Bar series on Manhattan's Lower East Side, arguing in favor of "eating locally". (His libertarian opponent, Saife Ammous, a fellow Columbia PhD student, argued that the world is improved when people eat whatever they like.) Anttila-Hughes, notes series host Todd Seavey, has "a great combo of zealotry and civility that I love to see in these debates and that the whole world could probably do with more of—though I'll keep eating sushi."