Science Talent Abounds in Potomac

Science Talent Abounds in Potomac

What does a brain look like when a person is making a choice about risks and rewards?

How would computers work if they could use the space between zero and one?

These were some of the questions that won local students national recognition competing for what is sometimes called the junior Nobel Prize.

It used to be awarded by Westinghouse. Now, they call it the Intel Science Talent Search, and quite of bit of this talent was found in Montgomery County.

Of 1,581 applications, 300 high school students were chosen as semifinalists. Of those 300, 14 were from Montgomery County, including one Potomac student attending Montgomery Blair’s science magnet program (which had 12 semifinalists), one student from Whitman, and another from Wootton.

Each semifinalist was awarded a $1,000 scholarship, and each semifinalist’s school is given $1,000 per student for its science program.

The 40 finalists will be selected today, Jan. 29. Finalists will come to Washington to be judged and to compete for scholarships totaling more than $500,000. The winners will be announced on March 11.

JOSHUA CHANG OF Potomac, who attends Montgomery Blair, had worked on a different project over the summer.

“My summer project failed, so I wanted to do something else,” Chang said.

“He basically doubled his workload,” said Glenda Torrence, research coordinator at Montgomery Blair. She explained that in addition to his normal studies, he would be working on this new project and applying to colleges.

The 17-year-old’s final project: “Quantum Computer Simulator: A Deterministic Model of Synthetic Quantum Gate.”

“He learned quantum mechanics, basically from scratch. He spent hours poring over textbooks that would terrify a normal person,” said Torrence.

“Basically, I was working with something called quantum computers,” Chang said.

According to Chang, quantum computers could revolutionize computers as we know them. He explained that the computers we use today operate with “switches” which have only two choices — the familiar binary code of 0 or 1. Quantum computers work with areas between those two, creating an infinite number of possibilities.

“Quantum bits would make everything go exponentially faster. We could do a lot more with a lot less,” Chang said.

A minor obstacle in his studies is that these computers don’t actually exist. “Some people have created primitive versions of them,” Chang said. His work, therefore, was theoretical. “Because they don’t actually exist, I tried to program a computer to model it,” Chang said. His major difficulty was in trying to get today’s technology to understand how tomorrow’s will work. Apparently he succeeded enough to impress the judging committee for the prestigious Intel award.

He has not yet committed to a college but says his first choice is MIT.

While Chang definitely wants to win, he is taking a philosophical approach. “I’m a little nervous, but I’m pretty happy about what I’ve done,” Chang said.

NEIR ESHEL ISN’T likely to be pigeonholed as a science-only mind. A Whitman senior, Eshel edits the student newspaper and is avid clarinetist.

“He’s one of the top students I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve been teaching for over 30 years,” said Dr. Clare VonSecker, a Whitman science teacher who supervised Eshel on his internship. “He has many, many interests and has many friends. … He’s a born scientist in terms of his curiosity.”

“I was always really curious. When I was younger, my favorite book was ‘1,000 Questions and Answers,’” said Eshel. “I went to a lot of science summer camps, the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins, and Space Camp.”

While in history class two weeks ago, Eshel found out that he was one of the Intel scholarship semifinalists. His “very ecstatic” father stayed home from work to get the news, then came to Whitman to congratulate his son in person.

ESHEL STUDIED motivation among subjects choosing results in a wheel of fortune during the project he submitted to the Intel scholarship committee. Subjects undergoing MRI scans are asked to rate their anticipation before choosing a low-probability, high-reward color, or high-probability, low-reward color. The project is entitled “Selection and Anticipation in a Reward-Related Task: An MRI Study.”

“He was able to come up with a way to expand the experiment with an idea that was really his own,” said VonSecker.

The results of this experiment have applications to mood and anxiety disorders.

“In the long term, it could have implications for therapy,” said Eshel. “Any risk-taking or decision-making … is relevant in people’s lives.”

Eshel’s science feats are just part of his extracurricular docket. He plays the clarinet and was invited to perform in the Maryland Classical Youth Orchestra and the All-Eastern Honors Band, which draws from 11 Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states. He also edits the Black and White, Whitman’s student newspaper, where he is in charge of a 90-person staff.

“They all go together in some ways,” said Eshel, also captain of the school’s math team. “They all have to do with teamwork.”

EVEN AS WOOTTON senior Kartik Pattabiraman is recognized for his brainpower, he’s thinking about the brains of other people. His study focused on the migration of brain cells during human development.

“I want to continue to study brain injuries, and see how people are able to recover from them,” said Pattabiraman. He plans to major in biology in college, and hopes to focus on neurobiology.

Pattabiraman’s award-winning report focused on cells in the brain’s hyperthyroid, which are found in the nose of a human embryo and migrate to the brain during development. Pattabiraman’s report studied the effect of this migration. His report was entitled “The Expression and Role of Choleocysokinin-8 on the Migration of Gondatrophin Releasing.”

“MY DAD’S A SCIENTIST, and I went in to watch him at work when I was younger,” said Pattabiraman, who began participating in science internships in middle school.

He continues to intern at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) nearly every day. Students in the program work with a biomedical mentor and undergo a two-week training period at the DNA Resource Center.

“Students who participate in this program are highly motivated, very dedicated and have demonstrated a desire and willingness to work hard and learn new things. Kartik is no exception,” said Wootton science teacher Lesli Adler. “He is a superior student, very intuitive, well rounded, personable, [and] involved in extracurricular activities.”

Some of these activities are science-related, like Adventures in Science, in which Pattabiraman built a machine that would move constantly for two months in a simulated zero-gravity environment. He is president of Wootton’s DNAcademy, an academic, service and social organization for students interested in biotechnology.

Pattabiraman is also part of Wootton’s debate team, and has argued the pros and cons of a globalized economy.

“He’s just a fascinating student,” said Sanford Herzon, a Wootton science teacher. “He has an incredible talent for picking up concepts and working them towards real methods to help solve them.”