Erika DeBenedictis' research to help spacecraft quickly and more easily travel to other planets has earned her a top student science award from Intel.
The 18-year-old from Albuquerque, N.M., took home the $100,000 first prize from Intel's 2010 Science Talent Search, an annual contest that challenges students to envision solutions to the scientific problems of today and tomorrow.
DeBenedictis' goal was to design a software navigation system that could help spacecraft more easily journey throughout the solar system. Her research discovered that gravity and the movement of the planets could create low-energy orbits to propel ships faster and with less fuel required.
Sponsored by Intel and run by the Society for Science and the Public, the talent search also awarded prizes to other enterprising students.
The second place award of $75,000 was given to 18-year-old David Liu of California for creating a system to recognize and interpret similar objects in digital images. Liu's research has already been used to pinpoint dangers to oil pipelines buried beneath the ground.
Third place was given to Akhil Mathew, an 18-year-old from New Jersey who took home $50,000 for his work with Deligne categories, a method for studying various algebraic structures with ties to theoretical physics.
The other 30 finalists each earned at least $7,500 in awards. Out of the 1,737 high-school seniors who initially competed in the talent search, 300 emerged as semifinalists in January. Of those, 40 were picked as finalists where they traveled to Washington, D.C., to vie for the top 10 awards.
"These 40 Intel Science Talent Search finalists demonstrate that we have the capability in this country to cultivate the next generation of innovators, scientists and entrepreneurs," said Intel CEO Paul Otellini in a statement. "These young scientists are proof that curious, eager minds coupled with inspiring, knowledgeable teachers are the foundation for world-changing innovation."
The Society for Science and the Public has run the Science Talent Search since its beginnings in 1942. Over the years, 7 finalists of the competition have won a Nobel Prize, 2 have won a Field Medal, 3 a National Medal of Science, and 11 a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, Intel said.