Youthful Ingenuity Honored at Intel Science & Engineering Fair

Young scientists receive awards in international competition.

+ More

By Laura Sanders, Science News

LOS ANGELES—Cancer-killing X-rays, nuclear threat detection and a fishy new plastic were behind the projects that took top awards at the 2011 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. In addition to those top winners, hundreds of students took over $4 million in awards and prizes home from a May 13 awards ceremony.

The weeklong science competition, a program of Society for Science & the Public, drew over 1,500 students from all over the world.

“Your innovation will help our global community transition to sustainable energy sources, mitigate the impact of national disasters and lead to new ways of preventing and treating addictions and disease,” Society for Science & the Public president and Science News publisher Elizabeth Marincola told the finalists at the awards ceremony. “Congratulations to each one of you.”

The top prize of $75,000, the Gordon E. Moore Award (named for the Intel Corporation cofounder and inventor of Moore’s Law), went to two California high school seniors who invented a way to fry cancer cells. Matthew Feddersen, 17, and Blake Marggraff, 18, of Lafayette, Calif., injected tiny particles of tin into a simulated tumor (the team used yeast cells as tumor stand-ins). When hit with X-rays, the tin produced secondary radiation that killed more cells than X-rays alone would. In tests, the tin didn’t seem to have any toxic effects. “It’s like a chemotherapy drug without the side effects,” Marggraff says.

Feddersen says they got the idea from news reports of secondary radiation being produced by faulty tin-based shields at nuclear power plants.

The technique could be easily implemented with existing technologies such as the X-ray machines found in dental offices, say Feddersen and Marggraff, both of whom have had family members with cancer. What’s more, the total treatment would cost about 60 cents per patient, so the technique would offer a powerful and affordable way to combat cancer in places with sparse access to sophisticated health care technology.

Next year, Marggraff plans to attend Washington University in St. Louis, and Feddersen plans to go to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Just after the awards ceremony, the two top winners were stunned to hear their names called. “It’s amazing. I don’t know how to describe it,” said Feddersen. “We were disappointed when we didn’t get fourth, so hearing this was astounding.”

Three Thai students won Intel’s Young Scientist Award, which comes with $50,000, for designing a new type of plastic out of fish scales. Pornwasu Pongtheerawan, 16, of Muang, Tanpitcha Phongchaipaiboon, 17, of Meung district, and Arada Sungkanit, 17, also of Meung district, will split the award. With an abundance of fish scales in Thailand, the team wondered whether a gelatinous product that the bony structures produce might be useful. After many experiments, the three hit upon a winning formula that produced firm, moldable plastics from the fish scale gelatin. Bowls and plates made of the plastic decorated their booth at the fair (and it should be noted that the plasticware had no trace of fishy odor). The plastic completely degrades in about 21 days in soil and causes no ill effects on critters there, the team found. So far, the plastic isn’t able to hold hot water or go in the microwave, so the team is tweaking the recipe.

Another recipient of Intel’s Young Scientist Award—and $50,000—is Taylor Wilson, 17, of Reno, Nev. Wilson created a sensitive, low-cost way to detect nuclear material such as weapons-grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium. At the heart of the detection method is Wilson’s fusion reactor, which melds atoms of deuterium together and creates neutrons. By shooting these neutrons into cargo containers and seeing what kind of radiation signatures are emitted, observers can tell what kind of material is inside. In contrast to other nuclear detection methods that rely on helium-3, an isotope that is currently in short supply, Wilson’s relies on water, an abundant, cheap and nontoxic material. The method could be used to detect radioactive material at border crossings or ports. Wilson’s work receives funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“It feels amazing,” Wilson said right after he won the award. “Science is really cool, and you can change the world.”

Two projects were awarded the Dudley R. Herschbach SIYSS Award, which comes with an all-expense-paid trip to Sweden to attend the Stockholm International Youth Science Seminar and the Nobel Prize ceremonies. Herschbach won a Nobel prize in chemistry in 1986 and is also emeritus board chair of Society for Science & the Public.

The first winning project comes from two South Korean students who created a material that mimics spider silk and used it to gather water. Like dew on spider webs, drops of water coalesce on the material and then can be funneled into a reservoir. Jinyoung Seo, 18, of Go-Yang City and Dongju Shin, 18, of Seoul are currently building water-harvesting devices with the silk analog that can be used to collect usable water in places where there is fog but very little rain.

The second Herschbach SIYSS award went to Andrew Kim, 18, of Athens, Ga. In his project, Kim explored why some fruit flies are extreme fighters. The more social experiences a male fly has had, the less likely he is to be aggressive, Kim found. A gene called cyp6a20 seems to have a role in the process, too. Understanding the biological basis of aggression might help scientists understand neuropsychiatric disorders that lead to extreme aggression, Kim says.

“These kids are our future,” said Wendy Hawkins, executive director of the Intel Foundation. “They build the world that we are going to have to live and thrive in." Seeing what they've accomplished "restores my hope that we’re all going to be OK," she said.

Three students won European Union Contest for Young Scientists awards, which come with a trip to Helsinki to attend the contest. The winners are Lai Xue, 18, of Chengdu, China, for building an augmented reality system that merges digital objects and the real world; Erica Portnoy, 17, of Dix Hills, N.Y., for figuring out some of the details of how bacteria infect human cells; and Jane Cox , 16, of Provo, Utah, for her new method to distinguish meteorites from indigenous rocks.

Seventeen categories took home Intel Best of Category awards in classes ranging from Animal Sciences to Energy and Transporation. Best of Category awards come with $5,000 to the student, $1,000 to his or her school and $1,000 to the affiliated science fair where the work was initially presented.

In each category, students also won prizes ranging from $3,000 to $500. First- and second-place winners in each category will also get a minor planet—otherwise known as an asteroid—named after them, courtesy of MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. The lab’s Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research Program searches the sky for solar system objects that could strike the planet. MIT’s Jenifer Brinker Evans assured the winners that their asteroids wouldn’t pose a threat: “No one has to fear their namesake will be the source of world destruction,” she said.

---

 Follow U.S. News Science on Twitter.