Samantha Garvey was overjoyed. She didn't think a kid living in a homeless shelter would have a chance in the national Intel science competition, but the 17-year-old Brentwood High School senior was named a semifinalist Wednesday.
Garvey, who spent 2 1/2 years on a marine-life study, is one of 61 Long Islanders with a shot at Intel's top prize: $100,000.
"It's amazing," she said, after learning of the award. "I can't believe it. I was thinking about it the other day and said, 'Nah, it's not going to happen. They pick people in Roslyn, Great Neck, Jericho . . . people who have it all.' "
Garvey -- who lives in a Bay Shore shelter with her parents and her brother and sister, who are 13-year-old twins -- said her family's setbacks are a source of motivation, not just despair.
"I want better, so that's why I do well in school," she said.
While the recognition from Intel surprised the teenager, her mentors said she is a standout.
"The drive she has is unsurpassable," said Garvey's guidance counselor, Karin Feil. "She has overcome more obstacles than any other student I have seen. She takes advantage of anything offered to her."
Garvey's family first became homeless when she was a little girl, she and her father said. She switched elementary schools three times in a single year.
The Garveys' circumstances eventually improved enough for them to live in the same home for several years. But her parents, Leo and Olga, missed work and lost income after a car accident last February. On New Year's Day, behind on their rent, they were forced out of their house and spent a week in a hotel before going to the shelter.
Garvey acknowledges the trauma of being uprooted and the family's financial stress can make it harder for her to focus on school and her goal of becoming a marine biologist.
"You think about what is going on, where you are going to be, off in the middle of nowhere, stuck in a shelter and it worries you," she said. "The house we were living in had a dog, a cat, turtles. Then one day someone turns around and says, 'You have to leave.'
"What are you going to do with your animals? Yourself?"
The dog, a 4-year-old pit bull named Pulga, is in the pound and will likely be euthanized, Garvey said. The cat is staying with a relative and the turtles are at her cabdriver father's dispatch office. She's hopeful that her parents might find a new home within a month. She's not sure what will happen to her pets.
Still, she presses on, maintaining a 3.9 grade-point average and her faith that education will bring her -- and her family -- a better life. She is president of her school's chapter of the National Honor Society and is applying to Brown University, among others.
Rebecca Grella, her science research teacher, mentor and friend, said Garvey will make her mark.
"She is one of the most inquisitive, thought-provoking, respectable minds that I've met," Grella said. "She is willing to accept when something needs to be changed. She is more than humble."
Garvey's Intel project focused on predators' effects on ribbed mussels.
Garvey was named a semifinalist in the national Siemens competition in math, science and technology in October 2010 and started studying mussels in 10th grade. Her findings, which focused on mussels' effect on the health of salt marshes, were published in the Journal of Shellfish Research last summer.
Despite her family's tribulations, Garvey continues to help others in need -- bringing food to school for the hungry and presents for special needs students. She is cheerful and charismatic, Grella said.
"She is steadfast and determined not to be a victim," the teacher said. "She will not complain. She has been a gift and a light in my life."
Feil, the guidance counselor, said she's ranked fourth in a class of 433. Garvey's course load is heavy; she's enrolled in Advanced Placement courses in biology, statistics, literature and composition, and politics. She's also studying Italian and playing the violin.
She and Grella credit her parents for encouraging her and for driving her wherever she needs to go to complete her research.
Leo Garvey said his daughter has pushed herself all her life.
"I'm always bragging about her," he said. "She sets her mind to something and she goes for it. She amazes me all of the time."
Samantha Garvey's study
Samantha Garvey's Intel project focused on the effects of predators on ribbed mussels.
The results showed that mussels exposed to crabs grew thicker, heavier shells to protect themselves.
Mussels are critical to marshes in part because they filter contaminants out of the water and excrete valued nutrients. The marshes serve as an essential barrier between the ocean and Long Island and also provide nurseries for myriad fish and other sea life.
-- JO NAPOLITANO