How These U.S. High School Students Hit the Big Time

Teens awarded more than $1 million for scientific innovations at the 2016 Intel Science Talent Search, and for the first time in the event’s 75-year history more than half of the finalists were female.

The creation of software that helps drug makers develop new therapies for cancer and heart disease. A cost-effective filter that removes a common contaminant from stormwater systems. A low-cost, smartphone-based lung function analyzer that diagnoses lung disease as accurately as expensive laboratory devices.

These projects scored three teens — Amol Punjabi, Paige Brown and Maya Varma — top honors, including $150,000 each at the 2016 Intel Science Talent Search (Intel STS), held at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., on March 15.

Intel STS is the country’s oldest and most prestigious pre-college science competition, and has launched the careers of 12 Nobel laureates, two Fields medalists, 17 MacArthur Foundation Fellows, and 11 recipients of the National Medal of Science or Technology.

Some 1,750 high school seniors applied for this year’s event; only 40 made the final cut. These finalists traveled to the nation’s capital for a week to present original research to panels of esteemed judges and compete for Medal of Distinction awards in three categories: Basic Research, Global Good and Innovation.

In addition to two of the three top winners being female, it was the first time in the event’s 75-year history that more than half of the finalists were female.

“This milestone is an inspiring sign of progress toward closing the gender gap in technology and engineering,” said Rosalind Hudnell, vice president in Human Resources, director of Corporate Affairs at Intel Corporation, and president of the Intel Foundation.

“We hope these finalists’ outstanding work will inspire young people from all backgrounds to develop their interests in these fields.”

Here are the winners:

Medal of Distinction for Basic Research

This award recognizes finalists who demonstrate exceptional scientific potential through depth of research and analysis.


First Place: Amol Punjabi, 17, of Marlborough, Massachusetts

For his computational biology and bioinformatics project, Punjabi developed software to help drug makers develop new therapies for cancer and heart disease. He is the lead author of a paper on nanoparticles published in ACS Nano and co-author of a paper on a related topic in Nanoscale.


Second Place: Meena Jagadeesan, 17, of Naperville, Illinois

Jagadeesan investigated an object in algebraic combinatorics, or the mathematics of counting, to reveal a novel relationship between classes of graphs.


Third Place: Kunal Shroff, 17, of Great Falls, Virginia

In his research, Shroff discovered new relationships between the key protein associated with Huntington’s disease and the biological processes of cellular death that cause Huntington’s symptoms. His work may lead to new treatments.


Medal of Distinction for Global Good

This category rewards finalists who demonstrate great scientific potential through their passion to make a difference.


First Place: Paige Brown, 17, of Bangor, Maine

Over the course of two years, Brown studied the water quality of six environmentally impaired local streams with high E. coli and five with high phosphate contamination levels. She is currently developing a cost-effective filter largely made of calcium alginate strands to remove the phosphate from stormwater systems.


Second Place: Michael Zhang, 18, of Berwyn, Pennsylvania

Zhang engineered tiny virus-like particles to deliver gene-modifying proteins to target cells for medical therapy by altering the genome of those cells in a controlled way.


Third Place: Nathan Charles Marshall, 17, of Boise, Idaho

Marshall studied a marine sediment core sample and related it to present-day climate change, concluding that Earth can recover from current climate change trends if action is taken soon.


Medal of Distinction for Innovation

This category celebrates finalists who demonstrate problem-solving aptitude through innovative design and creativity.


First Place: Maya Varma, 17, of Cupertino, California

Concerned about the lack of access to medical intervention for lung diseases in the developing world, Varma created a low-cost, smartphone-based lung function analyzer. Using just $35 worth of hobbyist electronics and free computer-aided design tools, her device diagnoses lung disease as accurately as expensive devices currently used in medical laboratories.


Second Place: Milind Jagota, 18, of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

As a less costly alternative to the transparent conductors now used in touchscreen devices, Jagota studied the performance of random nanowire networks.


Third Place: Kavya Ravichandran, 17, of Westlake, Ohio

Ravichandran studied the use of nanomedicine to destroy potentially fatal blood clots that can cause heart attacks and strokes.


Winners One and All

Second-place winners won $75,000, third place winners, $35,000, and the remaining finalists received $7,500 each.

In total, more than $1 million was awarded to finalists, semifinalists and their schools through the competition.

“The Society congratulates Amol, Paige and Maya,” said Maya Ajmera, president and CEO of Society for Science and the Public and alumna of the Science Talent Search.

“They and the rest of the top winners of Intel STS 2016 are using science and technology to help address the problems they see in the world and will be at the forefront of creating the solutions we need for the future.”

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