While judging the science fair last week at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, one judge, Jerome Strauss, commented: "Some of these kids are so bright that it's scary." One is Vladimir Sergei Novakovski, of Springfield, a finalist in the elite 2001 Intel Science Talent Search (once known as the Westinghouse Talent Search) for his project, "Optimal Hologram Design for Optoneural Computing." Staff writer Valerie Strauss (no relation to Jerome) asked the 15-year-old to discuss his background and his work. Novakovski, a native of Russia, belongs to the science, engineering and quiz bowl clubs at Thomas Jefferson. He placed first internationally at the USA Computing Olympiad Fall Open and Winter Open 2000 with perfect scores.

When was it evident to your family and teachers that you were unusually smart? And when did you start to show an interest in science?

My interest for science and mathematics was evident pretty early on. A particular incident that I remember happened when I was 3 years old. My parents had purchased me a journal for sketching, one that I was to use for several months. However, I sought another purpose for it. Within a day, I filled the entire notebook with numbers from 0 to 1,000,000; to speed up the process, I decided to only write down multiples of 5. I was very delighted at this availability of paper, because previously I used backs of envelopes, and even tables and chairs, to scribble mathematical calculations on.

My interest in engineering was first manifested two years later, at age 5. While many young children enjoy building with blocks, I went a bit further. Before any construction, I outlined on paper exact maps of a city I was to build, complete with details such as road intersections. I also used graph paper to draw and construct small paper automobiles, of which I made over a hundred models.

When did your family come from Russia to the United States and how difficult was the transition?

My parents and I came here in 1993. I did not know any English at that time, but I was lucky to have a great second-grade teacher who pointed me to excellent resources for learning the language. So, through intense reading, after a couple of months, I learned enough to keep up with the curriculum. Still, I was surprised when, two years later, I had won first place in a countywide American Legion essay contest, for an essay entitled "Why the American Flag Deserves Our Respect."

Let's talk about your research project. How did you select the topic? How long did it take to complete? In the simplest terms possible, explain your project and how you went about doing it. And were you surprised when you became an Intel finalist?

I had been interested in both physics and computer science for many years, so it was natural for me to think of an idea that combines the two disciplines. I spent several months studying algorithms relating to neural networks, which mimic the way the human brain solves problems. Then, while working with lasers last summer, I realized that optics provides a novel implementation of this idea. That is when I decided to perform research in optical computing.

Starting this school year, I worked in the Optics and Modern Physics Lab at my school, where I am constructing an optical neural computer. The work I submitted to Intel mainly involves theoretical design of a particular part of this computer, the hologram. To perform that design, I came up with a new algorithm, based on the algorithms I learned previously. So, different parts of my project were done over the course of a year; I am still actively working on the experimental construction of my computer. I felt that my project was a successful one, so I was not terribly surprised when I qualified for the finals. However, in my years of participating in math, physics and computer science Olympiads on the national and international level, I had been accustomed to both success and failure, so I did not anticipate success in advance.

An optical neural computer would be useful in many areas of science and society. For example, it can perform ultra-fast pattern recognition, which would aid in tasks such as fingerprint identification, scanning or speech recognition.

You want to attend MIT and complete a triple major in physics, math and computer science. Do you know what you might do when you complete college?

I don't have a specific profession idea, although I am interested in working in the fields of optical computing, nanotechnology and neural network-based algorithms.

Who has most influenced you?

My parents, both of whom studied physics at the Moscow Institute of Technology, have had a great influence on me. They have always been eager in explaining scientific phenomena to me and make sure that I understand the explanations.

Vladimir Sergei Novakovski researched optoneural computing.