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Kimberly Te, Christine Yoo win $100,000 Siemens grand prize

Manhasset High School seniors Kimberly Te, left, and

Manhasset High School seniors Kimberly Te, left, and Christine Yoo, both 17, react to winning $100,000 in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015. Credit: Evelyn Hockstein

WASHINGTON — Manhasset High School seniors Kimberly Te and Christine Yoo clasped one another in a victory hug Tuesday as winners of the $100,000 team grand prize in the prestigious Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology.

To applause from hundreds packing George Washington University’s Morton Auditorium, Yoo fanned her face in stunned reaction as she and Te were called to the microphone, where they thanked their parents, teachers and other supporters. The good friends, who have known each other since the first grade, will share the scholarship award.

The two created microbial fuel cells designed to clean up oil spills or to provide power to developing countries by speeding up the breakdown of sediment and other matter. Te said their project — “We call it mud power,” she said with a smile — probably vaulted to the top because it was not done in a professional laboratory and the pair had to find work-arounds to many obstacles.

“The judges saw we were really passionate and everything we did was our own ideas,” Te said. “Because we did it in a high school lab, it has applications around the world. It doesn’t need advanced technology.”

As text messages poured in from friends watching the announcement from afar, Yoo turned to Te and said, “I can’t believe we journeyed this much together. I’m so proud of us.”

Te wants to become an environmental engineer, while Yoo hopes to become a chemical engineer and focus her work on pollution issues.

The students, both 17, were one of six two- or three-member teams in the Siemens national finals. They competed over the weekend with others from across the country in team and individual categories, presenting their projects and being interviewed by college professors on judging panels.

“Kimberly and Christine’s research project is emblematic of the true spirit and joy of science that, as educators, we admire and applaud,” judge John Regan, civil and environmental engineering professor at The Pennsylvania State University, said in a Siemens Foundation news release announcing the winners. “They tackled a challenging subject by taking a common material that many of us see and use at home every day and incorporated a fresh, innovative approach to its functionality.

“The result was an unexpected application — for use in environmental cleanup — that not only is more cost-effective than what is currently being used today, but also allows a higher power density,” Regan continued. “The level of independent work and creativity required to initiate this type of project is distinctive and impressive.”

The $100,000 grand prize winner in the individual category was Maria Elena Grimmett of Jupiter, Florida, a senior at Oxbridge Academy of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, Florida. Her project identified a potential new water purification method — a topic that drew her interest because she wanted to know why her well water was brown.

David Etzwiler, chief executive of the Siemens Foundation, said the winners “demonstrated an incredible commitment to the advancement of science, math and technology, as well as a resolve to tackle some of our world’s most challenging environmental issues.”

Alison Huenger, the science research specialist at Manhasset High, has been working with Te and Yoo since the ninth grade — including the year they focused on their prize-winning project. Tuesday, she waited while they fielded media questions and hugs from fellow competitors.

“This is huge,” Huenger said. “This is one of the biggest competitions in STEM. For them to win it all is just outstanding. Words cannot describe how proud I am of them.”

Manhasset Superintendent Charles Cardillo, on Long Island, praised the students’ “extraordinary achievement,” saying, “You can feel the excitement in the halls” of district schools.

“Not only are they great kids, they are two young ladies who possess great humility,” Cardillo said. “It serves as a great inspiration for younger students in our schools, and really schools throughout Long Island and New York state.”

Dominick Rowan, 17, a senior at Byram Hills High School in upstate Armonk, placed fifth in the individual category for his work in identifying a Jupiter-like exoplanet. He won a $20,000 scholarship.

With Joie Tyrrell

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