Student is finalist in science contest Atholton senior studied space data

January 28, 1996|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

An Atholton High School senior is one of two Maryland students named as finalists in this year's Westinghouse Science Talent Search.

Mani S. Mahjouri, who last year captured the top prize at the International Science and Engineering Fair in Canada, will compete in March against 39 other high school seniors from across the country for scholarships of up to $40,000. The finalists for the contest were picked from 1,839 entries.

"It's a real honor," said Mani, 17, a resident of Columbia's Hickory Ridge village. "It means a lot more than last year, because my project [this year] was more difficult and this contest has so much history to it."

Using data collected by the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft, he analyzed electrically charged particles in Jupiter's magnetic field, creating a computer model to explain how certain particles escape that field.

The model will be used and tested with data sent back by the Galileo spacecraft, which is orbiting Jupiter and transmitting results to Earth.

"This will be a very useful research tool," said Robert B. Decker, a staff physicist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory who specializes in theoretical space physics. Mr. Decker was a mentor for Mani, helping to guide him through the research and analysis.

Mr. Decker said he will continue to use the computer model created by Mani, even after the youth goes on to college in the fall, and he expects the two of them to complete a research paper for publication in a scientific journal. Writing a research paper is an unusual accomplishment even for doctoral students, Mr. Decker said.

"The way he worked was more like a graduate student than a high school student," Mr. Decker said. "I was impressed by his tenacity and dedication. He really wanted to see the problem through and find out what's happening, and that's rare to see."

Mr. Decker also advised Mani and another Atholton student -- Jonathan William Edwards, who graduated last spring -- on their research into the irregular distribution of hydrogen atoms around pTC Saturn. The two received $5,000 each and a trip to Europe for winning the international science fair in Canada last spring.

"It was helpful to do the project last year because I was able to get familiar with the computer and with APL," said Mani, who hopes to continue his work into space physics at whatever college he decides to attend. "But they were different projects. Last year relied on gravitational forces, but this relied on electromagnetic forces. It was a lot harder."

His next step is to begin preparing his research for the final round of judging in the Westinghouse contest, which will be March 6 to 11 in Washington.

One of the 40 finalists will receive a $40,000 scholarship. The remaining students will share $165,000 in scholarship money.

Mani is thought to be the first Howard County public school student in almost a decade to be named a Westinghouse finalist. In 1987, Centennial High School student Maxwell Meng finished seventh in the competition. In 1989, Jenny Jen-Yi Lin, a Columbia resident who was attending the McDonogh School in Baltimore County, was a finalist.

The other Maryland finalist in this year's competition is Montgomery Blair High School senior Jacob Lurie, 18, of Bethesda.

One other Howard County senior was among the 300 semifinalists in the Westinghouse competition. Zach Tropf, who also attends Atholton, was selected for his work on "The Optical Properties of KRS-5."

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