Top Intel winner did research at Stony Brook

Nithin Tumma, a teenager from Michigan who conducted Nithin Tumma, a teenager from Michigan who conducted his research at Stony Brook University, took the top $100,000 prize in the national Intel science contest in Washington, D.C. (March 13, 2012) Photo Credit: Charlie Archambault

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A teenager from Michigan who conducted his research at Stony Brook University took the top $100,000 prize in the national Intel science contest Tuesday night in Washington, D.C. -- one of eight finalists in this year's competition who had mentors on the Long Island campus.

Nithin Tumma, 17, of Fort Gratiot, Mich., was recognized for a project related to breast cancer therapy, developed during a seven-week stint at Stony Brook last summer. Tumma's mentor on campus was Dr. Berhane Ghebrehiwet, a professor in the university's Department of Medicine.

"Oh, it was amazing!" Tumma said Tuesday, recalling Stony Brook's extensive summer opportunities for high school researchers, which he initially discovered on the Internet. The 12th-grader praised university staff for allowing him independence in his work.

"I think he really thought that we learned a lot not just by making mistakes but by doing things ourselves and coming up with our own ideas," he said of Ghebrehiwet after accepting the top prize.

A similar point was made by finalist Neil Mehta, 17, of Jericho. "The one thing they won't do is show you how to do it," said Mehta, whose research dealt with a gene mutation associated with schizophrenia. "You learn from your mistakes -- that's the only way to learn it."

Ghebrehiwet, who learned of Tumma's award upon returning from a trip to Africa, said, "Essentially, you treat them as if they're graduate students."

The latest Intel results underscore Stony Brook's role as a national -- and even international -- incubator of teenage talent. The ninth-place winner in this year's Intel Science Talent Search, Alissa Zhang, 17, of Saratoga, Calif., also did lab work at Stony Brook last summer, though her final research related to diabetes detection was conducted elsewhere.

None of Long Island's five finalists, all of whom trained at Stony Brook, were among the top 10 winning scholarship prizes announced Tuesday night. It's the first year that has happened since 2005. New York State produced two of the top 10 contestants -- Mimi Yen, 17, of Brooklyn, who captured a third-place $50,000 scholarship, and Benjamin Van Doren, 18, of White Plains, who took a fifth-place $30,000.

California, home state of Intel Corp., which funds the competition, had three students in the top 10.

Still, the Long Island students were thrilled to be a part of the competition and its grand finale in Washington, many of them saying the best part was getting to meet the other finalists.

"I finally met people who share my interest in science and are the same age as me," said Juliana Coraor, 17, of Huntington High School.

Savana Kim, 17, of Commack High School, said: "Everyone here is exceedingly intelligent. You think you are good in science but then you come here and you find you have so much more to learn. I use it for motivation."

This year, 30 of 300 Intel semifinalists and eight of the 40 finalists were mentored in Stony Brook labs. Since 1997, Stony Brook has helped train 358 semifinalists and 43 finalists, according to campus officials who relish such numbers.

"The vast opportunities provided by our faculty researchers in mentoring budding young scientists exceeds that of any university in the nation," Stony Brook president Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr. said.

That might be challenged by other research universities such as MIT, which offers summer programs of its own for more than 200 select high school students each year. Still, there's no disputing Stony Brook's attraction for teenage scientists, not only from distant states, but also from overseas.

Stony Brook's summer research centers on two programs: one supported by the Garcia Center, which enrolls 60 teens each year and is part of the Engineering School; the other supported by the Simons Foundation, which enrolls about 35 teens in a variety of campus labs.

Miriam Rafailovich, the Garcia Center's director, recalled students she has worked with over the years from such countries as China, Taiwan, India, Iran and Israel.

"It's wonderful," she said. "You see kids sitting around the table, comparing food, clothes, holidays, parenting. If the world was like that, there wouldn't be any problems in any corner of the universe."

With Zachary R. Dowdy and Elaine Povich

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