53 LI students among Intel semifinalists

Half Hollow Hills East had six students named as semifinalists in the Intel Science Talent Search. Videojournalist: Jim Staubitser (Jan. 9, 2013)

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Fifty-three Long Island high school seniors won semifinalist honors Wednesday in the national Intel Science Talent Search, including several who cobbled together their research projects amid power blackouts and other effects of superstorm Sandy.

The Half Hollow Hills school district was the biggest winner in the Nassau-Suffolk region this year with six semifinalists, followed by Jericho with five, and Roslyn and Smithtown with four apiece. Twenty-two Island districts produced at least one semifinalist, as did two of the area's private academies.

"It's been the best Intel day I've had in a while, with the exception of my own children," said Stephen Sullivan, a science research teacher at Lawrence High School, where three teens took semifinalist honors.

Sullivan's three children, now grown, all won semifinalist awards when they were students in Levittown.

Lawrence, like other districts on Nassau County's South Shore, was hard-hit by October's storm. One of the district's prizewinners, Arielle Chapin, 17, wrote her entire research paper, which dealt with students' spatial learning, in the dark.

Her Atlantic Beach home fronts on a bay and was without electricity for more than three weeks because of flooding. Chapin wrote her paper on a laptop, which she charged during frequent visits to the house of a neighbor who had a generator. When not writing, she helped her family clean up their home, which at one point had 6 feet of seawater in the basement.

"We didn't have school for two weeks, so we didn't have much other work -- at least from school," Chapin said.

Semifinalist Joshua Pollock, 17, who attends John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore, recalled Wednesday how coping with the storm's effects interrupted his research on "Emotional Face Recognition."

"We were cleaning up our house and sharing deli sandwiches with the neighbors," he said.

This year's Intel prizewinners from the Island represent more than one-sixth of 300 awardees nationwide and more than half of those statewide. The number of regional semifinalists is down from earlier in the decade, when the Island regularly had more than 70 or 80 semifinalists each year.

Some contest experts attribute the drop to stiffer competition, possibly coupled with Sandy's impact. There were more than 1,700 entrants in this year's competition nationwide, compared with 1,558 in 2006, when the Island had 82 semifinalists.

New York produced the largest number of semifinalists statewide, with 104. California was second with 47 semifinalists, followed by New Jersey with 17.

Westhampton Beach High School had special reason to celebrate Wednesday. Nicasia Beebe-Wang, 17, is the first Intel semifinalist in the history of the school, which launched its research program more than 10 years ago. Her research, conducted at Brookhaven National Laboratory over the past two years, revolved around a genetic link to cocaine addiction.

"For us, this is huge," principal Chris Herr said. "This is one of the things we've been looking for the last couple years. We've put in the resources, the kids did the work and we couldn't be happier."

Most districts with semifinalists this year are perennial winners. Half Hollow Hills has had 33 awardees since 2004, while Jericho has had 41 and Roslyn 36, according to contest organizers.

This year's award winners, like those in the past, tend to thrive on hectic schedules.

Semifinalist Andrew Chen, 17, who attends Lawrence High School, is also concertmaster of his school orchestra and is taking six college-level Advanced Placement courses. Chen's research on organic polymer solar cells was conducted at Stony Brook University, as was the work of 26 other semifinalists.

Intel contest sponsors like to point out that past awardees have gone on to win seven Nobel Prizes, two Fields Medals and even an Academy Award. The latter went to actress Natalie Portman, a Syosset High School graduate named an Intel semifinalist in 1999.

Semifinalists came from 190 high schools in more than 30 states, plus one American high school overseas. All of them win $1,000 individual prizes and an equal amount for their schools.

Forty finalists nationwide will be announced Jan. 23. They will compete March 7-12 in Washington, D.C., for the Top 10, with a first-place award of $100,000.

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