Two Long Island high school seniors, whose research sprang from highly personal experiences, were best-of-category winners Friday at the prestigious Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.
Benjamin Kornick, 17, of Roslyn High School, and Rebecca Alford, 18, of Commack High School, were among more than 1,500 student scientists from around the world at this week's fair in Pittsburgh, which culminated in an awards ceremony Friday morning.
"This week has been life-changing," Kornick said afterward, "and the honor I received today will be remembered as one of my proudest accomplishments for the rest of my life!"
Kornick won the behavioral and social sciences category for his project, "OMG: Look Who Joined Facebook! The Relationship Between Parenting and Adolescent Risk Behaviors," which examined how parents are most effective in deterring teens from risky behavior, both online and offline.
Kornick said he was motivated by an experience in fifth grade, when he and his friends were bullied by a classmate on AIM, an instant messaging service.
Once he joined Facebook, Kornick said, "I was surprised by what my peers were doing with little regard for the social, emotional and legal implications of their actions," making him wonder what parents could do to deter such behavior.
Alford, who earlier this year also was named an Intel Science Talent Search semifinalist, took the top honor in the biochemistry category for developing and writing a computer program that predicts the effects of genetic mutations on the structure and function of proteins.
Her motivation came from having been diagnosed at age 5 with a rare genetic disorder that affected her vision. "This ultimately inspired me to understand why rare genetic disorders are so challenging to diagnose and treat," Alford said.
Students in the competition, the world's largest high school science research competition, represented 446 science fairs worldwide.
The students "are doing very high-level work," said head judge Chuck Vukotich, a faculty member in the Graduate School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh. "Much of this work is college-level, some is graduate-school level, and some is professional caliber."
Alford, a second-time finalist at the Intel fair, said she began "beaming" the moment she heard her name called at the ceremony.
"The entire auditorium was applauding, and I knew at that moment that all of my work had paid off and that I made a difference," said Alford, who is heading to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in the fall to study computational biology and biophysics.
"What's really cool" about Alford, said Richard Kurtz, who teaches science and research at Commack High School, is that "for her, it's not about the fair; it's about the science."
"When she writes some computer code or makes a discovery, "she'll run and jump -- she gets so animated," he said.
By the end of 10th grade, Kurtz said, Alford had "surpassed anyone at the school, and my job was to help her find a mentor at the university level."
Commack High School sent three other students to this week's competition.Kornick, who will attend Columbia University and plans to study social policy, psychology and political science, said "to be named best in category is simply mind-blowing."
"I am so happy for him," said Allyson Weseley, his research mentor and coordinator of secondary research at Roslyn High School. "He has achieved so much, and he's done so much of it on his own."
Among his findings: Parents who want to keep their kids from doing risky things on Facebook or other social-networking sites should set limits and restrictions, but not look over their shoulders and solicit daily updates.
Each of the 17 best-of-category winners receives $5,000, with the Intel Foundation awarding $1,000 grants to the students' schools.Taking the fair's first-place honor and $75,000 award was Jack Andraka, 15, of Crownsville, Md., for creating a new method of detecting pancreatic cancer.