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LI’s Intel national finalists grateful for experience

Long Island's national finalists in the 2016 Intel

Long Island's national finalists in the 2016 Intel Science Talent Search competition are, from left, Rachel Mashal, 18, of John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore, Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna, 17, of Elmont Memorial High School, and Jessica Li Huang, 17, of Jericho High School. The three gathered for pictures after the awards ceremony at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., on March 15, 2016. Credit: Tamara Lytle

WASHINGTON — Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna of Elmont Memorial High School said it all in three words: “An honorable experience.”

Uwamanzu-Nna, 17, and Long Island’s two other finalists in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search did not come away with top prizes Tuesday night, but the sincerity of their gratitude and amazement at being participants spoke volumes.

“I’m really excited about colleges and encouraging young students to continue to follow their dreams,” Uwamanzu-Nna said after standing on the stage in the National Building Museum’s Great Hall — just before the awards were announced — as one of 40 national finalists from across the country in the competition.

Three first-place Medals of Distinction of $150,000 each were at stake, as well as three second-place awards of $75,000 and three third-place prizes of $35,000. Those top nine awards were given in three categories — Basic Research, Global Good and Innovation. All 40 finalists were guaranteed at least a $7,500 award.

Amol Punjabi of Marlborough, Massachusetts, took the top award in Basic Research for developing software that could help drugmakers develop new therapies for cancer and heart disease, and Paige Brown of Bangor, Maine, won the first place for Global Good for studying the water quality of six environmentally impaired local streams with high E. coli and phosphate contamination levels. Maya Varma of Cupertino, California, won the top award in Innovation, for using $35 worth of hobbyist electronics and free computer-aided design tools to create a smartphone-based lung function analyzer that diagnoses lung disease. All are 17.

Long Island’s two other finalists — Jessica Li Huang, 17, of Jericho High School, and Rachel Mashal, 18, of John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore — spoke of how happy they were for the new friends they made during the past six days in the nation’s capital.

“Trying to reconcile what attention I deserve with attention I’m getting is extraordinary,” said a humble Huang. “I’m really happy right now.”

And then the trio from Long Island adjourned to a side room with their families to have their pictures taken — together.

During the cocktail hour beforehand, the three seniors rattled off facts about their research projects in math, science and engineering to tuxedo- and gown-clad academics and technology researchers, Nobel Prize winners and the entourages of their fellow competitors.

“There’s no place else to get this kind of gymnastics for the brain,” said Huang, a class vice president and co-captain of the varsity cross-country team at her school. Her neurological research project was developed with mentoring support from Yale University.

Maya Ajmera, head of the Society for Science & the Public, which administers the award, said this year was the first where female finalists outnumbered males. The contest, now in its 75th year, is the oldest of its type for high school seniors nationwide and includes eight Nobel Prize winners among its alumni.

Uwamanzu-Nna said she might not have believed it before her project began in 10th grade if you had told her she would be researching cement.

“If anyone asked me, I would have said, ‘Cement? That’s rocks and water.’ ”

Her project looked at a version of cement that was more effective in uses such as oil wells. She was inspired by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, attributed partly to flaws in the strength of cement. She rattled off facts about how cement causes 7 percent of human carbon dioxide emissions and is the second-most-used material, after water.

Uwamanzu-Nna was first drawn to cancer research, but the field was crowded.

“Don’t be afraid to try something different,” she advises others. “Though you may face obstacles, keep going. Doing something different allows you to be heard. You shouldn’t fear being different. It’s often that fear that keeps scientists from discovering the next big thing.”

Contestants have been in Washington since late last week for multiple rounds of judging, with questions meant to gauge their ability to think outside the box. Example: What happens to a candle burned in a spaceship with zero gravity?

The two days of finalist questioning from top scientists judging the contest was an education, Huang said, because it pinpointed weaknesses in her knowledge.

“This week has felt like one long day,” Huang said as she stood before a poster of her project during the cocktail hour. She explained to anyone who stopped by how her applied mathematics project could have applications to society, such as understanding the intelligence of someone with autism unbiased by other factors, or using neurological imaging to help epilepsy patients avoid invasive surgery.

“Math has always made me happy,” said Huang, who has been accepted to Harvard University. “It’s great to see it has applications to other things than making me happy.”

Contest results were announced toward the end of the dinner for student competitors and their guests at the National Building Museum, itself an engineering feat built after the Civil War to handle solders’ pensions. The dinner was held in the 15-story Great Hall amid soaring Corinthian columns in a space that has hosted presidential inaugural balls since Grover Cleveland.

Kim Stevenson, vice president of Intel Corp., started the evening off calling the finalists “the next generation of innovation.” She charged the adults with getting the children in their lives involved in STEM projects.

During their time in Washington, the finalists have visited Capitol Hill and the National Institutes of Health in a Maryland suburb, met academic research stars and national politicians, and exhibited their projects at the headquarters of the National Geographic Society.

Mashal said she loved checking out the laboratories at NIH and hearing what they produce there with materials similar to what is in her laboratory. She first got interested in her project working on the connection between eating disorders and anxiety.

“I wanted to look at the underlying genetic and biomechanical aspects that cause mental illness,” she said, so she studied how manipulating diet and genetics of fruit flies affected caffeine addiction.

Mashal said research had humbled her.

“These are the smartest kids in the country,” she said, looking around at her fellow blue-ribbon and medal-bedecked finalists, all accustomed to perfect and near-perfect test scores. “Research is mostly composed of failure.”

Learning to work through that failure, as well as to communicate with colleagues and present her findings “helped me grow.” Mashal is waiting to hear from Ivy League colleges, where she will study biology or biochemistry.

Michelle Flannory, a research and chemistry teacher at Elmont Memorial High, who was in Washington for the finals, said she was impressed by the breadth of exhibited research. Projects ranged from studies of exoplanets — that is, planets outside our solar system — to a student-devised apparatus costing a mere $35 that can be used for diagnosing pulmonary diseases such as asthma, she said.

“This is a group of students who know how to use science to give back to their communities,” said Flannory, who has taught Uwamanzu-Nna.

She also credited Uwamanzu-Nna with earning her place through great tenacity and an ability to use constructive criticism.

Uwamanzu-Nna initially was turned down by her sponsor, but kept asking until she changed her mind. Flannory called Uwamanzu-Nna “a persistent little bugger.”

The students’ all-expense-paid trip to the national finals included lodging at a five-star hotel and other perks.

“The students might as well be Nobel laureates — that’s the way they’re treated,” said Serena McCalla, the science coordinator in the Jericho district who also was in Washington for the finals.

Contestant Mashal, of Merrick, was whisked via limousine to the airport on Thursday for her flight to Washington after spending much of that day at another science contest on Long Island.

As Mashal waited to board the plane, her cellphone rang. She then learned that because she took a first-place award at the Long Island event, she also qualified to participate in another Intel-sponsored event — the International Science and Engineering Fair, scheduled for May in Phoenix.

“It’s really extra special,” said Barbi Frank, a research teacher at Kennedy High School, who also is in the capital.

Mashal’s research involved experiments with fruit flies, to see if they could be used as a model in studying caffeine addiction among humans.

New York State is a perennial producer of Intel finalists, with eight students this year, including the three from Long Island. California this year was the state with the highest number of finalists, with 10.

Long Island’s finalists said they were impressed by their colleagues and enjoyed hearing from other researchers passionate about their projects.

“Everyone here deserves it,” Mashal said. “They blow me away.”

With John Hildebrand

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