Computer Research Might Land Senior $100,000 Scholarship

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 3, 2007

An 18-year-old Fairfax County math prodigy has conducted research that could help build speedier computer networks and, he hopes, earn him a $100,000 college scholarship.

Jacob Steinhardt, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, will find out this morning if he wins first place in one of the most coveted math and science contests in the country.

Sponsored by the Siemens Foundation, the contest rewards teenagers who are tackling some of society's toughest problems, including how to cure cancer, how to combat "global warming" and how to improve online communication. Steinhardt faces stiff competition from other teens across the United States.

Out of 1,600 entries, six individual and six team finalists gathered in New York City over the weekend to present their findings before a panel of judges.

A teenager from Kansas discovered a possible treatment or cure for the herpes simplex virus; a California team found that a drug commonly used to treat breast cancer might encourage tumors to grow; another team of three home-schooled students in Pennsylvania created a webcam system to monitor hamburgers for E. coli bacteria when they are being cooked in fast-food restaurants.

Steinhardt said he recently became interested in studying computer networks algebraically to see how they could be run more efficiently.

"It was me just doing stuff for my own edification, and it evolved," he said.

Over the past year, he worked on the project sporadically, he said. Sometimes, when he was bored in class, he would take out a piece of paper and doodle calculations. Other times, "I wasn't in the mood to rack my brain in math," he said.

When he ran into questions he could not answer mathematically, he would find the right textbook and study the principles he needed to understand.

Steinhardt took calculus as a sophomore. With linear algebra and multivariable calculus also under his belt, his math education at the elite magnet school is mostly self-directed now. He is enrolled in a course on using computers to solve math problems, but he has also arranged two independent studies, including one on topology, an extension of geometry that investigates the nature of space.

"My joke is that I can tell people that I taught him everything he knows," said his father, Allan Steinhardt, an electrical engineer. In reality, he said, he spends "a lot of time trying to figure out" what his son is doing.

He did not know that his son was immersed in such an ambitious project until a few months ago, because the teenager was also busy with other activities.

Jacob Steinhardt is working to become an Eagle Scout; he is the co-captain of his school's math club; and he plays piano and soccer. He is hoping to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology next year to continue his studies of math and computer science.

All told, the Siemens Foundation, which is affiliated with the multinational electronics giant, will give out $2 million in scholarships this year.

"We want to inspire the next generation of mathematicians and engineers," said Jim Whaley, president of the foundation.

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