Last night, I had the pleasure of attending the annual Intel Science Talent Search awards dinner here in Washington, D.C. It's an event I've gone to several times before, since I used to work for Science News, the magazine published by the society that runs the Intel STS competition.
For those of you who don't know, the Intel STS—formerly known as the Westinghouse competition, after its previous sponsor—is probably the nation's preeminent event for fledgling scientists. The competitors are all U.S. high school students, yet the science projects they produce bear as little resemblance to the archetypical papier-mâché volcano as we humans do to our bacterial forebears. (About 1,300 students have entered the competition annually in recent years. By last night, the field had been winnowed down to 40 finalists.)
In a large room at the Ronald Reagan Building, I wandered from one mind-bending scientific poster to the next, sipping a beverage that the presenters weren't old enough to drink.
On one poster, a boldfaced phrase—"efflux pump inhibitors"—caught my eye. I'd only recently learned how these pieces of cellular machinery enable cells to pump out poisons; it certainly wasn't in my vocabulary when I was 17. Eric Delgado of Bayonne High School in New Jersey, the young scientist beside the poster, explained to me how he'd demonstrated the ability of a particular synthetic chemical to block the poison pumps in numerous kinds of bacteria, thereby increasing the effectiveness of antibiotics. As I looked on, another "grown-up" aggressively grilled him with questions, each of which Delgado answered with panache and patience. The questioner later took me aside and confided that he'd been a judge for the competition. He was so impressed when he first saw Delgado's work, he told me, that he initially didn't believe a high schooler could have been the first to conceive of and execute it. Pretty impressive that he did. (A few hours later, Delgado was awarded fifth prize and a $25,000 scholarship.)
Nearby, another competitor was fielding questions from Nobel Prize winner Dudley Herschbach, a Harvard chemist. I leaned in close, eavesdropping on the Nobelist, but I couldn't understand what he and the student were saying. I wish I could blame my mediocre hearing. The truth: Their discussion was in Greek, almost literally. Greek letters littered the young man's poster, several of them clustering in what appeared to be a math equation beneath the line "Dissipation by quadratic bottom boundary layer drag." Oh, that.
Fortunately, the young man, Ayon Sen of Westwood High School in Austin, later delivered a speech that I could fully understand. He even concluded it with a clever laugh line that paraphrased Einstein's advice on when a scientist should shut up. (I'll spare you a retelling, since I can't blog with comic timing.) Sen's fellow competitors had elected him to an honorary office that comes with the responsibility of delivering the evening's Glenn T. Seaborg Lecture, named after a former STS finalist who went on to discover the element now known as seaborgium—and win a Nobel Prize.
Over a catered, black-tie dinner, the competitors—as well as judges, journalists, and other invitees—heard Craig Barrett, chairman of Intel Corp.'s board of directors, explain why his company doles out more than half a million dollars in scholarships each year to the students who get to this final round of the STS.
"We have one choice as a nation, and that is to compete with our brains and our ideas," he said, following introductory remarks by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.
Then, the 40 students took the stage to laudatory introductions and numerous mentions of MIT, Stanford, and other top colleges that many of the finalists will attend this fall. Shivani Sud of Charles E. Jordan High School in Durham, N.C., took the top prize for her genetics research in predicting colon cancer recurrence and identifying drugs that could treat the disease. According to her official bio, she'll be heading to either Princeton or Harvard later this year, and she has plans to earn not one, but two, doctorates.
Nine other students, Delgado included, walked off the stage with top awards. And all 40 carried forth the promise of great careers to come.