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Intel crowns Junior Nobel Prize scientist

The company's search for the nation's top young scientist ends with a 17-year-old girl from New York placing first in the contest.

Intel's search for the nation's top young scientist ended tonight with a 17-year-old girl from New York placing first in the high-profile "Junior Nobel Prize" contest.

Viviana Risca, of Port Washington, N.Y., beat 40 other finalists with her research project describing a sophisticated new way to use the DNA structure to enhance encryption technology.

She took home the $100,000 first prize, part of $1.25 million in Intel scholarship money that was disbursed among the final contestants. Each of the 40 finalists also won a new Dell mobile PC with a Pentium III processor.

"Intel's primary focus for philanthropy is education," said Seth Walker, an Intel spokesman. "This whole effort targets the alarming trend of science and technology graduates decreasing while the demand for them is increasing."

Intel has set aside $100 million for its education effort, which includes teacher training, community involvement and tonight's science competition.

In January, Intel and Microsoft announced plans to pour money into a training program for teachers around the world to help them turn out tech-savvy lesson plans.

Like many high-tech companies, the chipmaker hopes that better-trained teachers will help develop its future worker pool and customer base.

The science contest, first introduced 59 years ago by Westinghouse, has produced five Nobel laureates and is generally regarded as an incubator for future successful scientists, Walker said.

This year, Intel upped the winnings from a total of $330,000 to $1.25 million and drew about 1,500 student applicants.

Many of the entries were more Web-focused than in years past.

Robert Wang, a 15-year-old out of Conway, Ark., for example, submitted his project showing a way to compress streaming media without sacrificing picture quality.

Others focused on more conventional experiments.

Helen Wiersma, an 18-year-old soccer player from Florida, discovered a new control method for Tropical Soda Apples, weeds that have infested Florida's pasture lands. She came up with the idea three years ago after watching her grandfather yank the massive weeds on the family ranch.

"These students are remarkable," Walker said. "They exhibit incredible leadership."