County's Whiz-Kid Bounty: 2 Intel Finalists, 2 Presidential Scholars

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 31, 2007

Montgomery County public schools yielded two Intel Science Talent Search finalists and two Presidential Scholars this spring. Three of the four students came from Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring. To have even one student honored in either of the contests would be a feat for a school system, let alone a single school.

The scholars program, created in 1964 to honor the nation's top students, selects two from each state, the District, Puerto Rico and Americans living abroad, plus 15 at large and 20 in the arts -- 141 in all.

Kathy Jee, 17, earned 2,390 out of a possible 2,400 on the SAT and got straight A's through four years at Montgomery Blair. She's an editor of the school's Silver Chips student newspaper and, at 5 feet 6, a varsity basketball player.

She's a top graduate of Blair's Science, Mathematics and Computer Science Magnet Program, which produces more than its share of nationally recognized students.

Kathy is interested in medicine, and she has already made a contribution to the field. Last summer at Georgetown University Medical Center, she studied how breast cancer cells metastasize. She will continue the work this summer, before enrolling at the University of Maryland.

"Scientists in that area know a little bit" about the way breast cancer cells metastasize, "but it's so complex, and there's so many proteins and pathways involved," she said. If scientists can determine "which protein comes when" in the sequence of invasive events, "it will be a lot easier to develop a drug to target that protein."

The Georgetown lab has acquired new microscopes, which should afford her a better view of her quarry this summer.

Tudor Dominik Maican, 18, is a true prodigy. He was born on Beethoven's birthday, and he began piano lessons at 3 and wrote his first composition in the first grade. To date he has written more than 30 works, including a half-dozen symphonies, and he's finishing a string orchestra piece, on commission, for performance in January by the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra.

Dominik has been traveling to New York weekly to study at the Juilliard School. He made his final trip last weekend. In the fall, he will enroll at Indiana University. "It's actually the biggest music school in the country," he said. He's finishing his senior year at Winston Churchill High School.

Dominik, a Presidential Scholar in the arts, is a composer-in-residence at Dumbarton Concerts in the District and has received more than 40 international awards for his compositions.

Montgomery Blair High yielded two of the 40 finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search, the nation's most prestigious high school math and science competition. Matthew McCutchen, 17, entered a computer-science project that will appeal to anyone who has ever had to settle for a second choice.

Matt studied different sets of rules that could be used to assign people to tasks based on their preferences in ways that maximize their happiness. It's the sort of process undertaken when, for example, parents in the Downcounty Consortium (which includes Blair) are asked to name their first and second choices among the consortium's five high schools. Not everyone gets the first choice. Needless to say, a successful algorithm could have innumerable applications.

He studied a technique called "popular matching," which attempts to assign tasks to people in the most popular way. There are ways to maximize the popularity of the assignments, or to minimize their unpopularity. Matt found it helpful to distinguish "between assignments that are just a little bit bad versus assignments that are just terrible, pointless."

Matt has also earned silver and gold medals at the International Olympiad in Informatics, an international computer-science competition. And he was a 2006 winner of the prestigious USA Mathematical Olympiad. He was admitted to Harvard, Caltech and MIT but will attend the University of Maryland. He expects to end up teaching "at a university somewhere."

Matt's Blair classmate Brian Lawrence of Kensington also was a finalist in the Intel contest, for a math project, involving number theory, that defies simple explanation. Here, for the math majors, is a description from the Intel Web site: "He classifies several families of minimal finite groups, such as the smallest ones with exactly p{+2} -- 1 elements of order p for any prime p."

Brian is a repeat winner of the Math Olympiad.

Blair produced several other contest winners this spring. Among them: Melissa Mergner, a 15-year-old sophomore, whose student documentary was honored this month in C-SPAN's StudentCam video documentary competition.

Her film, "Speaking Truth to Power," profiles Baldemar Velasquez, founder of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. Shooting the film took her to farm labor camps in North Carolina. It's her third "serious documentary," she said; the first two covered the bombing of Hiroshima and the life of Woody Guthrie.

Melissa said she found the documentary the best way to express her concern that "sometimes in history people show one side, and the other side, either it's biased or it's not there." Her goal is to have won at least 50 awards for her work by college. "I think I'm at 27," she said. "I might be an overachiever."

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