The Intel (formerly Westinghouse) Science Talent Search, “America’s oldest and most prestigious science research competition for high school seniors,” has set young scientists’ hearts a-racing since 1942. With over half a million dollars in awards available to the forty national finalists, it’s no surprise that the 2009 STS saw over 1600 entrants … among them yours truly.
In addition to submitting an original research paper, initial entrants are also judged on essays, coursework, and test scores; it’s like a college application, but more intense. I was working frantically to complete my essays the very day of the deadline and ended up hand-carrying my envelopes into the DC office not too many minutes before the 8 PM cutoff. Given my last-minute rush — and the fact that animal science/zoology projects have usually met with little success in this competition — I didn’t get my hopes too high. Through who knows what kind of black magic, the STS reviewers whittled 1600 applicants down to 300 semifinalists, and then to 40 finalists. Astoundingly, I remained afloat.
From March 5-11, I underwent the single most grueling yet most elating week I’ve ever experienced — the final round of STS. No sooner had I arrived than I was subjected to two days of cross-examination by four panels of judges ensconced in separate interrogation chambers. Three judges per room, one question per judge, five minutes per answer … in every field from physics to medical science. (And not just any judges, mind you; we had, among others, the discoverer of dark matter, a nuclear physicist from Los Alamos, and leaders in cancer research.)
A good grasp of the fundamentals, logical rigor, and creativity of thought were key — no small feat when a single breath might take you from the molecular basis of mad cow disease to a pro-con analysis of the digital TV transition … and that’s before you’re judged on your own project. Three poster sessions later, I’d just about lost my voice, but the trial was over. Over the remaining few days, I shook hands with President Obama, dipped skewered fruit in chocolate fondue, debated transhumanism with Intel’s Justin Rattner, went bowling, had a minor planet named for me by MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, talked geopolitics with Senator Inhofe, and — ushered past those poor saps in the security line by Capitol Hill staffers — got my photo taken with Congressmen Lieberman, Kerry, Coburn, and Connolly.
After all this, the awards ceremony felt almost like an afterthought. Well, almost — Colin Powell and Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu joined Intel Chairman Craig Barrett as that evening’s speakers. I was honored to receive 7th place, but what I’ll treasure most are my memories of the 39 other finalists. Congratulations to all of my fellow researchers, particularly classmate Naren Tallapragada (also in the top 10), and deepest thanks to my parents, to my teachers and mentors, and to Thomas Henry Huxley, for penning the 12 words that started it all.