David Bauer, a 17-year-old senior at New York's Hunter College High School, devised a way of exploiting quantum dots, which are florescent crystals, to identify an enzyme that is found in all neurotoxins and, ideally, to reduce or eliminate exposure to people. Similar research projects are under way at and start-ups like Quantum Dot. Bauer is also a member of his school's varsity fencing team and the founder of a group that raises money for social justice in Liberia.
And if you aren't regretting your squandered youth just yet, second place went to Timothy Credo, 17, of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Highland Park, Ill., for developing a more precise method of measuring the time, in trillionths of a second, that it takes for secondary particles of light--such as pions, kaons and protons--to travel across a plate.
Kelley Harris, a 17-year old from McClatchy High School in Sacramento, Calif., took third place for a study on the way Z-DNA proteins may play a role in responding to certain viruses. She has also won awards for Scottish Highlands dancing.
Started by Westinghouse more than 60 years ago, the Science Talent Search is the oldest, and generally most prestigious, national science competition for high-school students. Past winners include five Nobel laureates, two recipients of the Fields Medal, a number of MacArthur Foundation grant winners and, one of the co-inventors of the microprocessor.
Intel took over the competition in 1998 as part of its overall effort to promote. An international competition takes place in May.
The top prize consists of a $100,000 four-year scholarship, while the second- and third-place finalists receive, respectively, $75,000 and $50,000.
Students taking fourth, fifth and sixth places get $25,000, while those ranking seventh through 10th receive $20,000.
Forty students make the finals. Plucked from 300 semifinalists, finalist projects in this year's contest range from an examination of interaction of acoustic waves on the motion of mesobubbles (Joline Marie Fan of Ohio's Upper Arlington High School) to the discovery of a water vapor cloud around a star (Abigail Fraeman, one of three finalists from Maryland's Montgomery Blair High School). The finalists outside the top 10 gets a $5,000 scholarship and a Centrino laptop.
The competition, limited to high-school seniors, is not for novices. Finalist Amber Hess, who attends California's Stevenson School, has been participating in science fairs since middle school.
The project that got her into the finals is a software application that analyzes thin-layer chromatography. The TLC Analyzer essentially extracts data concerning the fluorescence of a digital image of a thin layer of chemicals on a plate. Examining data about the brightness and color of this light--which is invisible--harvested by the TLC Analyzer lets a researcher quickly obtain information about the rate or consequences of a reaction.
The idea happened by accident. In the 10th grade, Hess blew up a digital image of a reaction and noticed some blue spots that didn't, initially, fit with what was supposed to happen in the reaction. While high-performance machines for carrying out these tests on food already exist, they cost about $30,000. "My technology would be ideal for a high-school or college lab," she said.
Stanford University accepted Hess in its nonbinding early-admissions program, but she is waiting to hear from Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Duke University.
"I want others to be more interested in science," she said. "Some people are intimidated by science because it looks complicated."
Other finalists included ninth-place winner James Cahill of Arizona's Flagstaff High School, for a paper on the possible astronomical significance in 11th-century Anasazi ruins at Lomaki Pueblo, and Sarah Langberg at Florida's Canterbury School, who examined volcanic indicators in the Pacific Ocean's Juan de Fuca Strait.