Senior reaches final stage of Intel competition

One finalist and three semi-finalists are recognized for their research projects in the Intel Science Talent Search.


by Ashley Ngu:

Graphics by Kimberly Han, Lisa Wu & Alvina Yau

Out of a candidate pool of 300 semifinalists, senior Andrew Liu was named one of the top 40 finalists in the nationwide Intel Science Talent Search (ISTS). In early March, he will attend the final round of competition in Washington D.C. to compete for the first-place prize of $100,000 and to meet with Nobel Prize-winning judges, professors of various fields and even the President of the United States.
This year, roughly 1,700 seniors entered the ISTS with their own original science projects. As one of the most prestigious high school science competitions in the United States, the ISTS focuses on promoting math, science and engineering. “The Intel Science Talent Search allows students to research what they’re passionate about,” Principal Katya Villalobos said. “It’s pure research for the sake of discovery and inquiry.”

[pullquote]“The Intel Science Talent Search allows students to research what they’re passionate about. It’s pure research for the sake of discovery and inquiry.” —Principal Katya Villalobos [/pullquote]

Research topics drew upon several fields of science. In his project, Liu combined computer science with biology, inventing a new algorithm that can be used to predict which pathways in a person’s body are causing a certain disease. He then applied this method to transplant rejection. After identifying the biological pathways that caused rejection, Liu set up a laboratory experiment which will test whether his method will decrease transplant rejection rates. “Transplant rejection is becoming a larger issue,” Liu said. “There are more than 28,000 transplants in the United States every year, many of which end in rejection. If the drug treatment is successful, it could impact many lives.”

According to Liu, the benefits of entering the ISTS extend far beyond the potential awards and press attention. “The ISTS is a great opportunity to share the research I’ve done with other scientists, other finalists, professors in the field and also the general public,” he said. Liu also believes that the standards of the ISTS allow students to acquire high-level communication and research skills. “When you write a research paper, you need to be able to organize all the research you did into a coherent story about why your research is important and what the impact of your findings is to other people,” he said.

Three other Gunn students were also recognized as semi-finalists, each receiving $1000 in scholarship money. Senior Audrey Ho looked into the synthesizing of fullerenes, or 3-D carbon nanostructures, which can be used in superconductors, pharmaceuticals and optic materials. Senior Youyang Gu researched an innovative way of oral chemotherapy drug delivery using pollen encapsulation. Senior Brian Zhang used laser traps to investigate the crystal structures that form when polar molecules are cooled.

Liu recognized Gunn’s unique academic environment as a factor in encouraging his interest in science. “The faculty is very supportive of independent exploration,” he said. “Early on, Mr. Dunbar encouraged me to present, in class, computer science research I did on how Netflix recommends movies to you and that got me into communicating my research.” Liu notes that participating in debate has allowed him to gain confidence in presenting to an audience. “Many researchers have a hard time communicating their ideas and many debaters don’t have the scientific knowledge for research. So if you have both, you can contribute to your field and then you can tell the public about what you did and get them excited about that impact, which is the real end goal.”

According to Zhang, his entry into the ISTS helped him realize that every step of his education is useful in some way. “[My research] was a chance to apply knowledge I had gained to work on a current problem,” Zhang said. “Besides physics, I was using skills I had learned from courses such as calculus, computer science and chemistry. Without any one of those classes, I would have lacked a piece of information that ultimately helped me solve the problem.”

[pullquote]According to Zhang, his entry into the ISTS helped him realize that every step of his education is useful in some way.[/pullquote]

In addition to the individual student’s scholarships, Gunn received four $1000 awards, one for each Gunn semi-finalist, in recognition of excellent teaching and continued school support of student research. “The money will be divided amongst the math, science and technology departments because they’re encouraging and inspiring these students day-to-day, so it’s only right that they receive the funds,” Villalobos said.

Physics teacher Bill Dunbar suggests using the money to further enrichment opportunities for students. “If we have other students who are interested in starting their own research projects, we could use that money to help them get started,” he said.

Throughout the research process, students received aid from professors in notable universities, mostly through contacts they had developed through summer internships. For students who want to start a research project of their own, Liu suggests three things: “You need to be involved with science projects, find good guidance through mentors, and also have a passion,” Liu said. “I started doing science fair projects in seventh grade. At first, I made a simple computer game, but then as I got more involved with research, the projects built up on each other. You’ll find that if you go through the whole process of research and then produce a paper summarizing what you did, you learn several valuable skills from that alone.”

Zhang recommended that students contact professors at nearby universities for potential research opportunities. “Research opportunities in high school help answer the question of why learning is important,” Zhang said. “It can be a lot of work on top of school, but projects like Intel STS teach much more than any class.”

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