Seven Washington area high school students selected as finalists in a prestigious science competition are teenagers but the judges called the caliber of their work equivalent to that of graduate students.
Research projects of the area finalists in the annual Westinghouse Science Talent Search included Benjamin Che-Ming Jun's design that allows a robot to see its surroundings, and Benjamin Joseph Raphael's computer program that controls the survival of artificial insects. Five local Maryland students and two local Virginia students are among 40 finalists chosen from 1,705 students who entered research projects in the 51-year-old contest.
This year's finalists -- 31 boys and nine girls from 12 states -- will compete for $205,000 in scholarships from the Westinghouse Electric Corp. The scholarship winners will be announced March 9 in Washington.
The five local Maryland winners are Jun, 17, of Bethesda, a senior at Montgomery Blair High School; Mark David Pilloff, 15, of Fort Washington, a senior at Oxon Hill High School; Zhuangzhuang Peng, 17, of Derwood, a senior at Colonel Zadok Magruder High School in Rockville; Deborah Lynn VanderZwaag, 17, of Damascus, a senior at Montgomery Blair; and Kiran Sridhara Kedlaya, 17, of Wheaton, a senior at Georgetown Day School in the District.
Along with Raphael, 17, a senior at Paul VI High School in Fairfax County, the other local Virginia winner is David Robert Derkits, 17, of Arlington, whose engineering project developed "an innovative technique for experimental stress analysis in metals called x-radiolasticity." Derkits is a senior at Yorktown High School in Arlington.
"These kids are exceptionally bright in everything, not only science," said Eileen Milling, the New York representative for the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. "The majority of them are not the concept of being an ivory tower scientists or nerds. They are not nerds. . . . These are future scientists and Nobel Prize winners."
Some of the students said they worked on their projects for months and some for years.
"I wrote a computer program that simulates the process of evolution like Darwin's survival of the fittest," said Raphael, who spent five months on his project. "I put like artificial insects in the computer and created a program by which the computer evolves a mechanism to control their walking. The insects in the computer's memory will reproduce. Those that can't walk well will die off and those who do well will keep walking."
Jun said he started on his project, designing a robot vision system, when he was in ninth grade. "I've always been interested in gadgets and robots and wanted to design a robot which could map out a building," said Jun, who finished the project last year. "This device allows the robot to see its surroundings."
VanderZwaag submitted her high school senior research project in biochemistry, in which she experimented with the role proteins play in the biological process. Kedlaya entered a mathematics project, entitled "In Search of PT sets," in which he studied sets of whole numbers.
Pilloff said that he had been interested in science since he was a child watching his father, who is a physicist. Pilloff described his work in an article he co-wrote that appeared in the Journal of Applied Physics in July.
Pilloff, who skipped second and fifth grade, described his project this way: "It's a study of the quality of electron beams being emitted from a micro-tubule, a cathode surface that has a small protrusion on it in the form of a small tube. . . . I found these cathodes can produce a very high quality lithography, which is used to make circuit boards for computers."
His mother says Pilloff is a "typical teenager." "In fact, he just got his driver's permit and he was jumping up and down. He's on the high school swim team," said Hena Pilloff. "He doesn't just sit around all the time wondering about scientific things. He's this down-to-earth kid who is also very gifted."
Raphael said he fits his research in between the normal things teenagers do at night and on weekends.
"I think my personality is such that I'm not a social outcast. I can fit in pretty well," said Raphael, who is ranked number one in his class. "In fact I remember one time during my sophomore or junior year, someone asked my best friend, who is number two, who was ranked number one. He told him I was. Then the guy said, 'Ben Raphael? He doesn't look that smart.'
"I'm not your stereotypical nerd."