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Where Science's Budding Stars Can Shine

High School Finalists Present Innovations at National Competition in D.C.

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 6, 2004; Page B03

The night after a sixth-grade class trip to the planetarium, Morgan MacLeod lugged a telescope into his back yard and pointed it upward, searching for Saturn and Jupiter.

MacLeod found them, and he's been looking skyward ever since.

Ashley Fry, left, and Nicole Pranke discuss their biostatistical research project, which helps determine the correct dosage for new drugs. They are Midwestern Region representatives at the math, science and technology competition. (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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Using a contraption he built in a neighbor's back yard, MacLeod, 17, figured out last year how to spot two stars that were expanding and contracting, which caused them to grow brighter and then dimmer. Scientists label such stars "variable."

Until the high school senior from Maine pointed out the two stars, no one realized they existed. The method he used to find them was new, too -- cheaper and simpler than his adult colleagues had tried.

MacLeod was among 18 high school students from across the nation -- six individuals and six teams of two -- who presented research this weekend in the District as finalists in the Siemens Westinghouse Competition in Math, Science and Technology. This morning, one individual and one team will be awarded one of the contest's two $100,000 grand prize scholarships.

Along with the Intel Science Talent Search, which also awards $100,000 in scholarship money, this weekend's contest at the American Association for the Advancement of Science represents the top high school science event in the country. To get this far, the students' research had to represent true innovations in their fields. Some did work in university laboratories or partnered with top-level scientists. Others worked out of their garages or back yards.

They wrote long papers that were reviewed by university scientists and won regional competitions, beating out more than 1,000 others. Competition organizers said that by the time the students reached the District, they were all winners. The organizers worked hard to make them feel like rock stars, a rarity for science kids at the high school level, at which top perks are often reserved for athletes.

The finalists got a private tour of the floor of the U.S. Senate, and last night they attended a black-tie dinner at the Ronald Reagan Building. Tomorrow, the competition's winners will ring the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

Taylor Bernheim, 16, said she especially was impressed when the Siemens Foundation sent a car service to the airport to drive her and her science partner into the city.

"They make us feel so special. They treat us like royalty," said Bernheim, who with Jessica Fields, 17, did pioneering research in tissue engineering for the team competition. The two, who attend different high schools in New York, met this year at a summer program and have been hard at work since, sometimes sequestered in the lab until 4 a.m.

Bhaskar Mookerji, 17, a senior whose project involved synthesizing never-before-isolated zinc compounds, was enticed by the free meals.

"You'll never have food as good as this in your life," said Bhaskar, who explained that the chow at his residential science high school in North Carolina doesn't quite measure up. Bhaskar was the competition's representative of the Southern Region, which encompasses the Washington area.

Yesterday, during the heart of the weekend's events, students each spent 12 minutes presenting their projects to 11 judges from top universities, as well as family and fellow competitors. Afterward, the students spent 10 minutes shuttered alone with the judges for a question-and-answer period. The students said they reserved the most anxiety for this interrogation, the scientific equivalent of Donald Trump's boardroom.

"You have no idea what they're going to ask," Bernheim said. "They can ask you anything about anything."

The judges purposely ask "very penetrating questions" to assess the depth of the student's knowledge, said lead judge Kathie L. Olsen, associate director of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy. "They're basically discussing the work as if they were colleagues."

Olsen, who also served as lead judge last year, said that choosing among the projects is not easy and that the judges debate for several hours.

"It's very difficult," she said. "Every one of them deserves it."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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