From genetic sequences to gamma rays, students show off 'expert' science projects 2 area seniors compete in prestigious contest

March 08, 1998|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- If you're looking for a place to document the decline of science among America's youth, don't come here.

"Here" is the final round of the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, where today someone will win the high school equivalent of the Nobel Prize. The top award carries a $40,000 college scholarship and all the prestige a youth bound for MIT or Cal Tech could ever want.

Yesterday, in a large exhibit hall at the National Academy of Sciences, 30 boys and 10 girls stood by charts, graphs and diagrams that summed up months, sometimes years, of research. With two days of intense judging in the past, it was a day for contestants to exhale -- and explain their work to an admiring public.

Sparing no adjectives, two finalists from Howard County agreed they were part of an impressive crowd.

"It's tremendous," said Sabyasachi Guharay, a senior at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia. "Every single project is incredible. It's the hardest competition I've faced in my life. I personally think all 40 are exceptional."

Said Josh Evan Greene, a senior at Columbia's Oakland Mills: "Some of these kids are truly phenomenal. They're really experts in their fields already."

To get here, you spend your spare time thinking about things like drug resistance in cancer chemotherapy, childhood memory acquisition, cricket auditory communication or submicrometer particulate aerosols.

Guharay, 17, calls his project "Correlation in Genetic Sequences Across the Three Domains of Life." He studied the makeup of 8,500 gene sequences that span life forms from primitive bacteria to complex organisms. He hopes to devise a mathematical model that will predict how gene sequences function -- what they contribute to a life form.

Greene, also 17, called his project "Wavelet Analysis of Long Gamma-Ray Burst Temporal Profiles." He studied the high-energy bursts that emanate from the deepest parts of observable space. They hit the earth about once a year, but Greene thinks they are important because they may have played a role in star formation.

"Anyone who wants to track the evolution of the universe should be interested in gamma ray bursts," he said. "Why you should be interested in that -- well, I can't tell you."

Like many of the finalists, the two from Howard County found mentors to guide them.

Greene has studied with an astrophysicist from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. He got the scientist's name from a former Westinghouse semifinalist and impressed him with a letter of introduction.

Guharay says he owes his success to three mentors -- two of them professors from the University of Maryland, College Park. He also credits the hours he has spent in university libraries, combing through journals such as Physical Review Letters and the Journal of Computational Biology.

"But I don't want to give you the idea that I do this regularly," Guharay said. A native of India, he participates in cultural events of the local Indian community. He also competes on his school's debate team, sings in the concert choir and acts in local plays.

Greene plays on his school's ice hockey team, a point that moved one of the Westinghouse judges to ask, during an otherwise tense interview, why the Canadian hockey coach didn't use Wayne Gretzky in the controversial -- and losing -- Olympic shootout against the Czech Republic.

Greene's academic interests extend beyond science. He loves art and is reading an autobiography by the Spanish surrealist painter, Salvador Dali.

"He was really intelligent. It would be great if I could read all the classics and really enjoy them. There are some real good ones, like 'Crime and Punishment.' But I can't help it, sometimes I just have to do a math problem," he said.

Besides the coveted top prize, Westinghouse awards $30,000 and $20,000 scholarships to the second- and third-place winners. Three others win $15,000 scholarships, and four win $10,000 scholarships. Everyone else receives $1,000.

In the history of the Westinghouse competition, five finalists have won the Nobel Prize and two have the Fields Medal, the Nobel equivalent in math. Nine have won MacArthur Foundation "genius awards," and 30 have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

None of this is lost on the high school seniors, but Greene said he tries to keep a healthy perspective.

"Learning should be for the sake of learning," he said. "I'm kind of against competition in science. Research should be done because people want to do research. This should be about informing the public about what you did."

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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