Meet the new science wunderkinds

Teen scientists honored at Intel's prestigious annual contest for high-school seniors. Photos: Finalists show off projects

What do an environmentalist from Utah, a math whiz from California and an aspiring geneticist from Maryland have in common?

Well, it's a good bet they aced their SATs. They're also the teen winners of this year's Intel Science Talent Search (STS), a prestigious annual contest honoring high school seniors for extraordinary work in science, with scholarship prizes totaling $530,000. Past winners include six Nobel laureates, two recipients of the Fields Medal for excellence in mathematics, several MacArthur Foundation grant winners, and Marcian "Ted" Hoff, one of the co-inventors of the microprocessor.

Shannon Babb, 18, won top honors Tuesday in the Intel competition, which included a $100,000 scholarship, for her research and remediation work on pollution affecting seven rivers near her home in Highland, Utah.

Babb, a spelunking enthusiast and top of her class at American Fork High School, collected water samples over six months from the Spanish Fork River and its tributaries, measuring their chemical and physical composition while also testing for E. coli bacteria. She found that all seven sites exceeded Utah's state guidelines for cold-water fisheries at one point during the study, largely because of human pollution.

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Babb, who is Utah's first winner of an Intel STS, said she is working with the state water quality board to solve the problems, which she believes can be fixed by restructuring drainage systems and educating the public against pouring household chemicals into storm drains.

"There isn't a whole lot of (government) funding to do projects like this," Babb said in an interview with CNET News.com.

Started by Westinghouse in 1942, STS is the oldest, and generally most prestigious, national science competition for high school students. Intel took over the competition in 1998 as part of its overall effort to promote science education, for which it spends $100 million annually.

Forty students make the finals, plucked from 300 semifinalists and more than 1,500 total entrants. The contest culminated this week in Washington, D.C., with lengthy interviews between finalists and a panel of judges, chaired by Dr. Andrew Yeager, director of blood and marrow transplant programs at the Arizona Cancer Center.

Finalists also visited the White House for a visit with President Bush. One finalist said that during the visit, Bush was asked what his favorite science course was. He initially said that he didn't have one in college, but then he recalled enjoying Geology 101 at Yale.

Second place in Intel's competition went to Yi Sun, 17, from San Jose, Calif. Sun won a $75,000 scholarship for his discovery of new geometric properties of random walks, a mathematical theory with applications to computer algorithms and polymers. Sun described his experiment as such: Every time a man reaches a point on a grid, he takes another step randomly in one of four directions, making an infinite number of steps to wind around his origin.

"I found a way to divide the specific things I was looking at into two symmetric categories--that was the most important result," said Sun, a student of The Harker School who plans to study math next year at Harvard University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Sun is fluent in French and Chinese and is captain of his school's Quiz and Science Bowls team.

Yuan "Chelsea" Zhang, 17, came in third place to win a $50,000 scholarship. Zhang, from Rockville, Md., studied the plaque buildup of arteries that leads to heart disease, the single biggest killer among Americans. She studied the molecular genetic mechanisms behind the plaque to find the cell-adhesion chemokine molecule (CX3CL1) as a culprit. Zhang believes that targeting this molecule could lead to new medicines for atherosclerosis.

Zhang is a blogger and managing features editor at her school newspaper at Montgomery Blair High School.

Students taking fourth, fifth and sixth places get $25,000, while those ranking seventh through 10th receive $20,000. The remaining 30 finalists receive $5,000, and every finalist gets an Intel Centrino notebook computer.

Many of the teens start young. Babb said her first coherent memory was when she realized she wanted to be a scientist. Babb started research on water quality at age 13, when she analyzed the rivers near Utah Lake and found that most of their pollution was originating from the Spanish Fork River. Babb plans to attend Utah State or University of Utah, and eventually get a doctoral degree in hydrology, watershed and earth systems.

Intel Chairman Craig Barrett said the winners illustrate the importance of investing in science and math education.

"The seed of the next big scientific discovery could very well be planted (here)," Barrett said.

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