By the time the 40 teen finalists in the 2012 Intel Science Talent Search gathered in Washington on March 8, they had already done the hard work, having conducted the extraordinary research that earned them their places in the nation’s most prestigious pre-college science competition, exploring a wide range of topics that included alternative energy solutions, inexpensive ways to detect land mines and cost-effective cancer therapies.
Only one challenge remained: a six-day whirlwind of judging interviews, presentations and meetings with VIPs — including leading scientists and President Obama.
Loudoun County finalist Ari Dyckovsky, 18, who was featured in The Washington Post last week, was not among the top 10 winners announced at the culminating gala event Tuesday. Still, Dyckovsky said, the experience of joining in the nearly week-long competition was “absolutely fantastic” and offered a welcome opportunity to bond with peers who share his passion for science.
The judges “stressed that we should get familiar with each other and form a network, as opposed to caring so much about the competition, which was really nice,” he said.
Dyckovsky, a senior at the Loudoun Academy of Science in Sterling, began his research in quantum physics as a sophomore. Over the past few years, he has spent countless hours studying quantum teleportation alongside his mentor, Steven Olmschenk, at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg. Dyckovsky’s project, “Analysis of Photon-Mediated Entanglement Between Distinguishable Matter Qubits,” is difficult to explain — a challenge he had to address as part of the Intel competition.
When members of the public asked about his work at an exhibition event last Sunday, Dyckovsky said he focused on describing how quantum teleportation might be applied. For example, the quantum teleportation of information from one place to another could help government organizations such as the CIA or the National Security Agency convey a top-secret message without the risk of interception.
“I couldn’t go to the deeper levels, depending on the audience, so I spent a lot of time explaining at a surface level — which, in quantum mechanics, is pretty deep anyway. But it was a lot of fun,” he said.
Meeting the president was also a highlight of the week, Dyckovsky said. Obama congratulated the students individually on their work during a brief meeting Tuesday morning and spoke to the group about the importance of their projects.
“It was awesome. It was so cool that he took the time to do that,” Dyckovsky said. “Definitely one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life is shake the president’s hand.”
As ambitious as Dyckovsky’s project was, his fellow finalists were equally impressive. Among the top 10 winners were students who had developed projects with the potential to help astronomers see farther into the universe, to explore how the behavior of nocturnal migratory might affect the wind power industry and to pave the way for the development of micro-robotic devices.
The first-place winner was a clear choice, according to contest judges: Nithin Tumma, 17, a Michigan student, claimed the top prize — a $100,000 scholarship — for research that could lead to a more targeted, effective and less toxic breast cancer treatment. The judges noted that Tumma’s work was remarkably sophisticated.
“No matter who you are, that’s impressive,” Dyckovsky said of Tumma. “He deserved, hands-down, to be first. I’m really happy for him.”
The opportunity to establish relationships with peers such as Tumma was the most meaningful part of the entire experience, he said.
“The most rewarding thing was getting to know the finalists, and to know that I have a network of people who understand what I’ve gone through to do my research,” Dyckovsky said. “To know that in the future I will have these people as close friends and people I can call upon . . . is really nice.”