Three Long Island students exulted Wednesday after making the final round of the 2016 Intel Science Talent Search and gaining a chance to face off against some of the nation’s top high school researchers.
Rachel Mashal, 18, of John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore, Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna, 17, of Elmont Memorial High School and Jessica Li Huang, 17, of Jericho Senior High School will receive an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., from March 10-16 to compete for $1 million in awards provided by the Intel Foundation.
“I’m so excited! I can’t even believe I made it this far. This is just crazy,” said Mashal, who spent about 500 hours in a laboratory studying the addiction pathways of fruit flies to see whether manipulating genetics and diet can prevent drug addiction and toxic overdoses.
The three young women, all seniors, are in an elite group of 40 national finalists announced by contest officials. They were among 44 semifinalists on Long Island named earlier this month.
“Their research projects range from highly theoretical basic research to innovative practical applications aimed at solving the most vexing problems,” said Maya Ajmera, president and CEO of the Society for Science & the Public, publisher of Science News and alumna of the Science Talent Search. “But it’s not just their research that makes them stand out — finalists are also selected based on their leadership capacity and initiative.”
The nonprofit, based in the nation’s capital, has owned and administered the science talent search since its inception in 1942.
In March, first-place Medal of Distinction awards of $150,000 each will be presented to students who show exceptional scientific potential in three areas: basic research, global good and innovation. There are three second-place awards of $75,000, and three third-place awards of $35,000 for each of those categories.
As finalists, each of the students receives at least $7,500 for being selected as part of the prestigious group, according to the foundation. Last year, Long Island had five national finalists.
This year’s Intel finalists are from 38 schools in 18 states. Fifty-two percent are male, while 48 percent are female. They were selected from 300 semifinalists and 1,750 students who entered the competition.
“I am just so grateful,” said Uwamanzu-Nna, Elmont Memorial’s first Intel finalist and valedictorian of the high school. The achievement means a lot to her parents, who emigrated from Nigeria in the late 1990s, she said.
“My parents came to America so that their children could have all of these opportunities,” she said. “And now it is all being realized.”
Uwamanzu-Nna’s project, mentored by researchers at Columbia University, analyzed oil well cementing practices, particularly those linked to the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Previous studies indicated the disaster was caused by the poor mix design of the cement in the well, so she tested a novel cement design modified with nanoclays, which are clay minerals.
“It’s a phenonemal test and an undertaking,” said Regina Huffman, science coordinator for the Elmont district and the science chairwoman for the high school.
Huffman said the dedicated science students come in early and leave late, often working in the labs over the weekend. “It is a continual struggle to compete with the schools with the bigger programs, but as you can see the hard work has paid off,” she said.
Huang, of Jericho, said she couldn’t stop smiling on Wednesday.
“My cheeks are twitching because they aren’t used to this high level of exertion,” she joked.
Huang, accepted early to Harvard University, was one of six semifinalists in the Jericho district. She was mentored by Yale University Medical Center researchers in studying the network of the brain, the efficiency of how neurons communicate with each other and what that means for a person’s intelligence.
Now, the aspiring professor is focused on going to Washington in March.
“I’m incredibly excited to meet the other 39 finalists,” she said, “if for nothing more than to be enlightened about all of these different scientific fields.”