LI students discuss 'incredible' Intel contest

Michael Zhang, 18, left, of Smithtown High School Michael Zhang, 18, left, of Smithtown High School East, and Mayuri Sridhar, 17, of Kings Park High School, have been selected as finalists in the Intel Science competition. Photo Credit: Handouts

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Long Island's student finalists emerged from the Intel Science Talent Search contest Tuesday night without top prizes -- the first time that has happened for two consecutive years in the national competition.

New York State entered the annual contest tied with California for the largest number of finalists, at seven each. Two finalists were from the Island: Mayuri Sridhar, 17, of Kings Park; and Michael Zhang, 18, of St. James.

None of the top 10 contestants announced at the awards ceremony in Washington was from New York.

Forty finalists had gathered in the nation's capital for a week, with each presenting research findings before panels of expert judges. The $100,000 first prize went to Sara Volz, 17, of Colorado Springs, Colo., for research into algae biofuels. Tennessee produced two winners; no other state had more than one.

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"I was just really happy to be here," Sridhar said as she left the stage at the ornate National Building Museum, dodging the blue and white balloons that fell from the ceiling.

"It was a great week," the Kings Park High school senior said, noting that she got to shake hands with President Barack Obama.

Sridhar used computer modeling to gain better understanding of a protein called p53 -- research that has potential applications in diagnosing cancer.

Zhang, too, said he was thrilled just to be a contender.

"Being here in itself is such an honor. This was probably one of the best weeks of my life," he said after emerging from a post-announcement group hug with other tuxedo-clad boys.

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The Smithtown High School East senior used computers to track eye movements of dozens of student volunteers. The research has potential applications in detecting criminal activity and other patterns of human behavior.

Sridhar is looking at Caltech, Stanford and MIT to continue her studies in computer science. Zhang is still deciding.

Contest organizers said 20 states produced finalists this year -- tying the all-time high.

"Now a kid in rural New Mexico has access through the Internet to so much more research, and even to mentors that they didn't have even a few years ago," said Rick Bates, a spokesman for the Washington-based Society for Science and the Public, which manages the competition.

But some Long Island educators contend that growing pressure on school budgets has reduced the number of teachers available to help students polish research papers and meet contest deadlines.

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"We have kids who don't know how to fill out the contest forms, school districts that don't know how to fill out the forms," said Miriam Rafailovich, who runs a top summer research program for high schoolers at Stony Brook University.

The Intel Science Talent Search, established in 1942, is the nation's oldest high school research contest. It originally was funded by Westinghouse Corp., and since 1999 has been supported by Intel Corp., a California-based computer-chip producer.

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