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LI's Intel finalists finish outside top nine national winners

From left to right: len Li and Crystal

From left to right: len Li and Crystal Zheng, both from Jericho Senior High School; Scott Massa, of Commack High School; Samuel Epstein, of John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore; and Tiffany Sun, of Roslyn High School, were all named Intel finalists on Jan. 21, 2015. Credit: Jericho School District; Commack Union Free School District; Handout; Audrey C. Tiernan

Long Island's five finalists in the national Intel Science Talent Search competition came away Tuesday night with fond memories of explaining their projects to judges and curious crowds in Washington, D.C., but did not get top prizes of as much as $150,000.

"It's been an amazing experience to meet the other 39 finalists," Samuel Epstein, a senior at John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore, said in a phone interview before the winners were announced at a black-tie dinner at the National Building Museum. "Talking to them and hearing their amazing stories is just a reminder of how interesting these students are."

This was the third time in four years that no students from Nassau or Suffolk counties won top honors in the nation's oldest research contest for high school students.

Intel officials have said that competition has stiffened in recent years as students in states such as New Jersey, California and Maryland step up the quality of their research.

In addition to Epstein, local finalists were Ien Li and Crystal Zheng, both of Jericho High School; Scott Massa of Commack High School; and Tiffany Sun of Roslyn High School. Epstein is 18; the other students are 17.

Epstein's roommate for the week in the nation's capital was Michael Winer, 18, of North Bethesda, Maryland, who won a $150,000 top prize for his research on phonons, which are fundamental quasi-particles of sound.

Epstein’s own project looked at the effects of reducing caloric intake on disease susceptibility and aging.

After the winners were announced, Epstein said it had been an amazing experience to do the research and get recognized for it as a finalist.

Li said she was happy to be in Washington and thrilled for her friends who won cash awards. Li studied the roots of depression at Jericho High School, a very competitive school where she “observed stress and anxiety among” her peers.

Zheng called the winners awesome. “They're all so brilliant. … We all think in different ways and that's magical,” she said. She had researched mental illness, a topic she was moved to study after violent episodes such as school shootings.

The week has been “just amazing. You find out everyone’s crazy talents — not just science,” Zheng said. “It’s so wonderful when you get the [perspective] of someone else who is so passionate about science.”

Massa said, “We’re so proud of all our friends.” Though he and the other Long Island students had not won a cash award, “this is something that has given us so many opportunities,” he said.

Massa focused his research on ways to combat two crippling mental illnesses: schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease. Massa hopes his research into brain communications will help lead to more promising treatments.

Sun plans to study social science and focused her research on what choices people make in crisis, and why. The trip to Washington for her and the other finalists “has been a dream,” she said. "This experience really allowed us to delve into all the different personalities of the 40 finalists. … It was an honor to be here."

All finalists who participate in the Washington judging win $7,500, plus their initial semifinalist awards of $1,000. The finalists appear before judging panels, and also display and explain their projects to interested members of the public and adult researchers.

This year, Intel reorganized its top prizes into three categories: Global Good, Basic Research and Innovation. Three awards -- of $150,000, $75,000 and $35,000 -- were given in each category.

Winer took first place in the Innovation category, while Noah Golowich, 17, of Lexington, Massachusetts, won the Basic Research category and Andrew Jin, 17, of San Jose, California, took the top honor in Global Good.

One New York State student, Kalia Firester, 17, of Manhattan, won a $75,000 award in the Global Good category, which recognizes research that addresses real-world problems. Firester's project dealt with a protein produced by nematodes, which are crop-destroying parasites, and how that protein interacts with plants' cellular defenses.

Most successful Intel candidates do the bulk of their research in university laboratories, where adult supervisors often remark on the quality of the teens' work.

Christine DeLorenzo, an assistant professor of psychiatry and biomedical engineering at Stony Brook University, mentored Jericho's Li, who studied the biological mechanisms behind severe depression.

"Ien was our first high school student, but you wouldn't have known that," DeLorenzo said. "She really was as capable as any graduate student, and that's one reason we're taking on more high school students."

With Susan Milligan and Candice Ruud

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