50 students across LI and Syosset teen in Manhattan school named Intel semifinalists

Fifty high school seniors across Long Island took semifinalist honors Wednesday morning. Jericho High School has eight semifinalists, the highest number at any school in Nassau and Suffolk counties. Videojournalist: Chuck Fadely (Jan. 8, 2014)

Fifty seniors from high schools across Long Island took semifinalist honors Wednesday in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search competition -- one-sixth of 300 honorees named nationwide.

Another semifinalist, John Clarke, 17, who attends Regis High School in Manhattan, is a resident of Syosset.

Jericho High School had eight semifinalists, the highest number at any school in Nassau and Suffolk counties. Other districts with multiple winners included Great Neck with five, Manhasset with four, and Bellmore-Merrick, Herricks, Port Washington and Syosset with three each.


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The results in the annual contest were posted on the Intel Science Talent Search website at 7 a.m. -- an electrifying experience for local teenage science whizzes checking their cellphones and laptop computers.

Jericho's semifinalists exchanged high-fives with Serena McCalla, the school's science research coordinator, when they got the news Wednesday morning. Several teens attributed their success to McCalla, who regularly works in her office past 7 p.m., reviewing students' projects and ordering pizza or subs for those she counsels.

"She saw things in us that we didn't see ourselves," said Amy Xu, 17, whose research dealt with the evolution of microbes that infect humans.

"She pushes us so hard," said Preeti Kakani, 17, whose project dealt with genetic factors contributing to loss of vision. "She asks us questions, so we'll spend our class time looking up the answers."

The school's winners include identical twin brothers Chenle "Leo" Hu and Xingan "Ian" Hua, 17, who were born in China and moved to the United States with their parents at age 4.

McCalla, whose research program has produced more than 30 Intel semifinalists and two finalists in the past six years, said, "This is three years of kids working relentlessly." Most of Jericho's student researchers enroll in the program as sophomores and continue through senior year.

Jaclyn Onufrey, 17, a senior at Wantagh High School, learned of her award in a text message from her mother, Felicia. "It read: "HOLY HOLY HOLY. You're an Intel semifinalist!!!!!!"

Onufrey spent months studying the invasive Asian shore crab, which made its way to the East Coast in the late 1980s. She studied the animal's genetic makeup and its impact on the environment, particularly its competition with the native mud crab.

Long Island and other parts of New York State have dominated national science competitions in recent decades, and this season has been no exception. New York State led the nation with 96 Intel semifinalists, followed by California with 48 and Maryland with 21.

Last month, three seniors at George W. Hewlett High School, in the Hewlett-Woodmere district, shared a $100,000 team grand prize in another contest, the Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology.

Competition has grown stiffer across the country in recent years, and the Island's share of winners has shrunk somewhat as centers of excellence in high school research have emerged in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, the San Francisco Bay area and other regions.

Long Island hit a peak in 2003 with 89 semifinalists. New York State had 177 honorees that year, followed by California and Maryland with 19 each.

Miriam Rafailovich, a distinguished professor at Stony Brook University, noted that she is receiving an increased number of applications from high school students outside New York interested in attending summer research sessions on the campus. Last summer, about 40 percent of teenagers in Rafailovich's research program were from out of state.

"We had people from Hawaii and Alaska, even from out of the country," said Rafailovich, who directs a program that enrolls high school students as research apprentices at Stony Brook's Garcia Center. "We're getting applications from people who live in Hong Kong [and] France."

Students active in regional, state and national science contests have noticed that rivalries are growing stronger.

"Over the years, the competition has been getting more and more difficult," said Harrison Li, 16, at Ward Melville High School in the Three Village district.

Li, whose project dealt with frequency of thunderstorms in the Northeast over the past 30 years, was one of two semifinalists applauded by classmates Wednesday morning. The school's other winner, Luran He, 17, submitted research revolving around mathematical chaos theory.

Some semifinalists looked to space for their research.

Aron Coraor, 17 and a senior at Huntington High School, spent two years on a project meant to further understanding of the moon's formation.

The generally accepted model was created in the 1970s, he said, and "while it has been improved a little bit, there is a growing body of inconsistencies in the accepted model and the data we have in lunar samples." Coraor's goal was to come up with a new model for the formation of the lunar crust, one that would explain the discrepancies.

He spent an average of 23 hours per week on his research, most of which took place at Stony Brook University, and said it was "tons of fun."

Lori Kenny, a teacher for a decade, worked closely with Coraor and said he's a well-rounded student who delights in helping his peers.

"Not only is he the top academic student I've had in years, but he is also a great mentor to all other students," Kenny said. "He loves all subject areas. He can talk about anything from history to English to philosophy. He is going to change the world in a good way."

Ganesh Ravichandran, 17 and a senior at W. Tresper Clarke High School in the East Meadow district, traveled to the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena to use images captured by high-tech cameras to build a catalog of stars in the Milky Way.

Ravichandran spent six months creating a computer program that would allow him to sift through more than 1,100 images. His research helped ferret out discrepancies in other scientists' data, giving a clearer understanding of the universe.

He was gratified by being named a semifinalist, but said the real reward is in "becoming closer with the nature, the universe," and fostering "your own interest in science."

Erika Rotolo, a science research, biology and genetics teacher at Tresper Clarke, said Ravichandran is passionate about all he does.

"He is outstanding," she said. "He is truly talented as a writer, as a speaker. He is a top-notch student; he makes my job worthwhile. It is amazing working with someone at this caliber."

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