Where science is sizzling Research: Silver Spring's Montgomery Blair High School has placed a dozen semifinalists in this year's prestigious Westinghouse Science Talent Search.

January 15, 1998|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

In Montgomery County, where there's no shortage of brainy people doing impressive things at imposing places, a new science powerhouse is growing.

Montgomery Blair High School has a dozen semi-finalists this year in the prestigious Westinghouse Science Talent Search. More than high-tech Massachusetts. More than New Jersey, Connecticut and Michigan combined.

While pondering the great unknowns of dating and getting into college, top student researchers at the sprawling red-brick campus just inside the Capital Beltway study morphology and the Hurwitz Domain.

Despite project titles like "Measuring Infrared Radiance with Correlated Photons" and "Fast Parallel Median-Finding Using Probablistic Expanding Graphs," the Blair semifinalists insist they are regular high schoolers with, perhaps, a slightly expanded view of the universe.

"Be sure you put in there that we don't spend our entire day this way," says Luke Bergmann, who travels about 20 miles each morning from his Clarksburg home to Silver Spring. "We play music. We hang out with our friends. We do the normal things."

"Certainly," says a grinning Brendan Connell, aka Mr. Fast Parallel. "Several months ago, I wouldn't have understood my title either."

In the Westinghouse program, Montgomery Blair's total of semifinalists was tied for second in the nation with two New York City high schools that have much larger science programs. New York's Midwood High School at Brooklyn College, with 13 semifinalists, had more.

Overall, Maryland had 21 semifinalists, second among all states -- largely because Montgomery County had 16 award winners. Howard County had three, Frederick, one, and Charles, one.

Raymond Cheong and Sabyasachi Guharay of Wilde Lake High School, and Josh Greene of Oakland Mills High are the Howard County semifinalists.

The Westinghouse program, begun in 1942, is the oldest and largest scholarship competition for science, math and engineering students.

This year, 300 of 1,581 students nationwide made the first cut. This month, the number will be whittled to 40, and those finalists will compete in Washington for $205,000 in scholarships.

Winning a scholarship would be nice, say the Blair students, all seniors, but that is not why they worked summers, weekends and nights.

"Science is not a 9 [to] 5 job," says Bergmann. "People go into it because they have a passion of inquiry, a sense of wonder."

"Our mission is research," says Eileen Steinkraus, coordinator of the Blair science, math and computer science magnet program. "They will use it no matter what they do later in life."

Begun 13 years ago as a desegregation tool, Montgomery Blair's magnet science program takes place in the county's largest high school, which has 2,500 students. The participants spend half a day in their specialty.

The program blossomed as it tapped into the local scientific community from the National Institutes of Health to Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Scientists and researchers have served as mentors and permitted Blair students to work in their laboratories.

"Without mentors, there's no way any of us could go into a lab and have done what we needed to do," says Andrew Waterman, who studied how galaxies relate to each other.

In some cases, the students found that their research reinforced their previous decisions on an intended career path. For others, like Waterman, "it made me realize I want to do something more practical, "perhaps the study of aeronautics."

And for Louis Breger, an asthmatic, the research he began last year was more personal.

While being tested for oxygen capacity, Breger blew so hard into a device to measure peak flow that he tore his lung. Working with his mentor at the Army Research Laboratory in Adelphi, Breger began studying whether the sound of normal breathing could be translated into how much oxygen was entering the lungs.

Pub Date: 1/15/98

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