Forty-four seniors from Long Island high schools won semifinalist honors Wednesday in the national Intel Science Talent Search competition, with research on topics ranging from medical innovations to rising sea levels to careers of Fortune 1000 CEOs.
This year’s total for the Nassau-Suffolk region was the same as last year’s, and among the highest for any area in the country. Still, it was well below the record 89 semifinalists that the Island produced in 2003.
Contest officials cite a buildup of high-school research programs in other states such as California, Florida and Texas as one factor behind the shift in numbers.
Jericho High School students captured the largest number of semifinalist slots on the Island, with a total of six. Syosset High School and Ward Melville High School in Setauket took the next highest numbers, with five semifinalists each.
Later this month, Intel contest officials will announce 40 finalists eligible to compete for more than $1 million in scholarship money.
At Ward Melville, as at other schools, winners readily acknowledged being surprised by the announcement of the awards posted on a competition website.
Semifinalist Harriet O’Brien, 18, said she was not expecting the good news, because she had also taken similar honors earlier in another national competition sponsored by Siemens Corp.
O’Brien, of Setauket, studied various drug interactions to cells related to inflammation and damage to myelin, the coating around nerves, in the central nervous systems of people with degenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
“It’s for the thrill of discovery,” she said. “You know something that no one else does.”
Brian Oh, 17, a semifinalist at Jericho High, spent months working on computers at home and at Columbia University, developing mathematical models meant to better predict changes in sea levels caused by such factors as glacial melting. The senior said his interest in the subject was driven by damage done to Nassau County’s South Shore by superstorm Sandy in 2012.
“I was kind of appalled,” said Oh. “I wondered, why couldn’t scientists predict this better.”
For other students, reading a book sometimes inspires a successful research project. Daniel Hirsch, 17, a senior at Syosset High, read “Outliers”, a book by Malcolm Gladwell, on factors that lead to high achievement in business, sports and other fields.
Hirsch, who plans to study computer science in college, decided to put his research skills to work in pinpointing factors that may have contributed to the success of founders of Fortune 1000 companies.
One of his findings: Those born at the beginning of a 30-year period marking the growth of a particular industry — for example, computers — seemed the most likely to build major companies in that field.
“I think the biggest surprise to me was the 30-year window,” Hirsch said. “On the other hand, it seems logical that if you grew up with the technology, you would take advantage of it.”
Shannon Beattie, 18, of Mastic, a senior at William Floyd High School, became the school’s first semifinalist for her project on calculating the age of glacial minerals on the North Shore.
Altogether, 300 seniors across the nation are named semifinalists each year in the Intel contest. All are awarded $1,000 individually, and an equal sum for their schools.
Forty finalists to be named Jan. 20 will receive all-expense-paid trips in mid-March to Washington, D.C. There, they will appear before judging panels to vie for additional prizes, including three top awards of $150,000 apiece.
“They are the next generation of innovators, and we look forward to witnessing the impact they will have on making the world a better place,” said Maya Ajmera, president and CEO of the Washington-based Society for Science & the Public.
The society administers the 75-year-old competition, the nation’s longest-running research contest for high-school students. Alumni of the competition hold 12 Nobel Laureates, 11 National Medals of Science, two Fields Medals and 18 MacArthur Foundation Fellowships.
The intensity of research required by contests such as the Intel has an emotional impact on adult advisers as well as students. At Jericho High, the district’s science research coordinator, Serena McCalla, pounded her fists on a desk in jubilation and shouted, “Yes!” as student winners hugged one another nearby.
McCalla later said she works hard to get students to trust in their own abilities — for example, by requiring them to read advanced research journals, until they gradually grasp the technical terminology.
“They’re diamonds in the rough,” said McCalla, brushing away tears of joy. “If you polish those diamonds, you’ll be surprised by the results.”
Science Search originally was funded by the Westinghouse Corp., which gave the contest its name. In 1998, sponsorship was taken over by Intel Corp., the California-based computer-chip giant, which announced last year that it would stop its funding in 2017.
The Society for Science & the Public has said it is looking for new corporate backing but has made no other comment on the status of the search. Local educators familiar with the competition say they can’t imagine that a national institution so well known will have a problem finding backers.
“It’ll be exciting to see who comes next,” said Veronica Ade, the research facilitator at Syosset High.
As usual, New York took the largest number of semifinalist awards Wednesday, with a total of 97. California, Maryland and Massachusetts followed, with 47, 18 and 13, respectively.
Within New York, some top suburban high schools held their own competing against selective schools specializing in research elsewhere across the country. For example, Ossining High School in Westchester County produced eight semifinalists, tying with the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science in Denton, Texas, and the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia.
Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, topped the national list this year, with nine semifinalists.
With Michael R. Ebert