Fifteen girls among 40 finalists for $100,000 top science prize

The 40 Intel Science Talent Search finalists visited President Obama at the White House (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
The 40 Intel Science Talent Search finalists visited President Obama at the White House (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

This item has been updated with the names of the winners of the competition.

Every year, one high-school scientist leaves Washington, D.C., with enough money and accolades to set that budding scientist on a promising career path. This year, there are 15 girls among the 40 finalists competing for the $100,000 cash prize in the Intel Science Talent Search, a program of Society for Science & the Public

These teenage scientists are conducting research that seems destined to bring tremendous benefits to society. For example, Lisa Michaels is using the antioxidants from fruit flies she crossbred to develop Alzheimer’s to try to slow progression of senile dementia. Emily Pang is manipulating specific proteins to control cancerous growth. And Zarin Ibnat Rahman is examining how excessive exposure to electronic screens may lead to poor sleep patterns, thus creating daytime fatigue, increased stress, altered mood, and reduced cognition and memory.

The number of girls in the 72-year-old competition is impressive and not entirely unexpected. Science is one of those fields where women have been recognized for their work in the lab.

International recognition began in 1903 when Marie Curie (born Sklodowska) became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for her work in physics. She won the Nobel Prize again in 1911 for chemistry and is the only woman to have won twice.

The Nobel Prize committee has honored 15 different women with a prize in science (16 including Elinor Ostrom for Economic Sciences). Winners include Curie’s daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1935, and Ada E. Yonath, Elizabeth H. Blackburn, and Carol W. Greider, each of whom won a Nobel prize in science in the banner year of 2009 (the same year Ostrom won in Economics and Herta Müller won in Literature).

Many of these women grew comfortable in the lab as they toiled away at their research.

Yet, comfort in the lab hasn’t always translated to comfort outside the lab. Time and time again, female scientists must contend with expectations that they won’t be successful. A recent report from the Center for Talent Innovation found that almost one of every three senior leaders working in science, engineering and technology fields reported that a woman would never reach the top position in their company.

Likewise, one of the finalists in this year’s Science Talent Search recently had to respond to an innocent question, “Are you with the cheerleaders?” when she was at a competition with her all-girl robotics team. Team captain Sara Sakowitz described this incident in The Post when she wrote that “the last thing I ever thought would happen was that my group of twelve girls who routinely wire electronics, design complicated mechanical systems, and write detailed programs would be mistaken for another school’s dance team.”

You can bet that no one’s going to mistook the girl scientists for cheerleaders at the National Geographic Society Sunday, where all 40 finalists presented their research to the public.

One reason for this may be because the Science Talent Search is one area where girls compete on equal footing with boys. A girl won last year, girls recently won three years in a row, and girls have taken home the top prize twelve times since 1991.

Last year’s winner, Coloradan Sara Volz won the top prize for her research on algae biofuels. Through an experiment that she conducted on algae growing in glass flasks stored under her bed, Volz showed how to convert the oil that algae produces into a sustainable, renewable fuel. She’s now studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In 2010, Erika DeBenedictis of Albuquerque, N.M. won for her project that helps space ships find the most efficient routes to travel through the solar system. She figured out that taking advantage of gravitational forces could improve the fuel-efficiency of these spacecraft.

Girls won the prize from 2006 through 2008. In 2008, Shivani Sud of North Carolina won for her research on colon cancer that focused on identifying patients who were at a high risk for the cancer to return and on finding the best ways to treat their tumors. In 2007, Oklahoman Mary Masterman won for her spectrograph, a device that measures light and is used in medicine, forensics, and artwork analysis. In 2006, Shannon Babb won for her study of water pollution flowing from the Spanish Fork River in her home state of Utah.

Although girls have won five of the past eight prizes, this success is relatively recent.

A girl won in each of the first seven years of the talent search, but during those years the top girl and the top boy each won an award. Marina Prajmovsky took home top honors in 1942 for her essay on the uses of chemotherapy titled ”Chemical Death to Infection.” She used the $2,400 prize money to go to Radcliffe College, later earned a Ph.D., and became an ophthalmologist. Dr. Marina Prajmovsky Meyers was the gala speaker at the 1966 awards ceremony.

Starting in 1949, the award was given to the top scientist rather than to the top girl and top boy. That year, Caroline Herzenberg (born Littlejohn) came in second to Dwight Taylor.

For the next two decades, boys won the award, which was known as “the Westinghouse,” for the company that founded the award, every year.

Finally, in 1972, New Yorker Nina Tabachnik broke the gender barrier when she won the top award and $12,000 for her research on how pollution affects plants. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree at Yale University, a medical degree from Weill Cornell Medical College, and a Ph.D. from The Rockefeller University. Now Nina Schor, she became a pediatric neurologist.

This year’s winner will be announced at a black tie gala on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

The 15 young women finalists are Kathy Camenzind, Preeti Kakani, Joyce Blossom Kang, Angela Xiangyue Kong, Esha Maiti, Anne Merrill, Lisa P. Michaels, Viola Mocz, Natalie Ng, Emily Pang, Brianna Pereira, Zarin Ibnat Rahman, Sara Sakowitz, Jessica Shi and Kaitlyn Shin.

UPDATE: Research on preventing the outbreak of a flu pandemic, like the one that may have killed up to 50 million people worldwide in 1918, won the grand prize in the Intel Science Talent Search at a ceremony held in Washington, D.C., on March 11.

Eric S. Chen, a 17-year-old senior at Canyon Crest Academy in San Diego, Calif., won the top award of $100,000 for his microbiology project that identified new drug candidates for treating influenza and protecting against a flu pandemic. The swine flu outbreak in 2009, which may have caused more than 200,000 death worldwide, stimulated Chen’s interest in flu research.

Two girls were among the top ten award winners. Natalie Ng of Cupertino, California, won fifth-place honors and a $30,000 award for her research involving a way to predict how breast cancer cells spread to other parts of the body. Zarin Ibnat Rahman of Brookings, South Dakota, won seventh-place honors and a $25,000 award for her research on how excessive electronic screen time — say through video games — disturbs adolescent sleep patterns, thus raising stress levels and hindering academic performance.

Joann Weiner teaches economics at George Washington University. She has written for Bloomberg, Politics Daily, and Tax Analysts and worked as an economist at the U.S. Treasury Department. Follow her on Twitter @DCEcon.
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