Teen's work earns honor

River Hill High senior advances in national science competition

Finalists named today

She designed method to improve the look of computer graphics

January 24, 2000|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

One slow summer day about two years ago, teen-ager Kate Mowery was lounging around the house, breezily flipping through a book on flight simulation.

She scanned a chapter or two on ray-tracing. Perused some sections on techniques for graphically rendering three-dimensional objects.

Something was puzzling Mowery.

Why weren't the methods used to render opaque spheres undergoing constant rotation around a fixed axis near a fixed light source as efficient or as accurate as they could be? Could there be better ways than ray-tracing or approximating polynomials to perform such tasks?

So Mowery set out to devise a better way to render those moving opaque spheres.

Or, in plain English, she began researching faster ways to light and/or color spheres and other 3-D computer graphics, like those used in virtual reality games.

For two years, Mowery toiled, taking extra math, computer language and programming classes at her high school in her free time to become more knowledgeable about the topic.

Hours of research later, Mowery, now a 16-year-old River Hill High School senior in Howard County, has come up with two better, faster ways to create moving computer graphics.

Her work earned her a place in the semifinalist round of the Intel Science Talent Search, the national contest formerly known as the Westinghouse Science Talent Search.

Applications

Mowery, of Highland, says that her project, "Dynamic Compressional Rotation Algorithm for Lighting Moving Opaque Spheres," has practical applications. "It can pretty much help anyone who has anything to do with computer graphics," Mowery said. "It can be used for entertainment, for virtual reality, but that's a long way away."

Mowery also said that one day, doctors using virtual reality to operate on a patient in a remote location might thank her for her quick and accurate way to depict the patient's motions on-screen.

"But that's even farther away," she said. "But as far as I know, it's new, original research that hasn't been done, so that's nice."

She's one of only 300 high school seniors nationwide to be named a semifinalist, one of 18 in Maryland and the only one in the Baltimore metropolitan region.

The semifinalists were selected from 1,517 applications from 530 high schools in 48 states, Washington, D.C., the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. The 40 finalists will be announced today.

Top scientists from various disciplines judged the projects on entrants' research ability, scientific originality and creative thinking. Three scientists reviewed each application.

"Students that make it to this level obviously show scientific promise for the future," said Intel spokeswoman Barbara Carman. "They have a high level of scientific achievement and show a high level of personal and scientific creativity."

`A better way'

The problem Mowery was trying to solve isn't that difficult to grasp.

Say a graphic artist wanted to create a model of planets revolving around the sun with a three-dimensional effect for a computer game. Mowery said that, to light one of the planets using ray-tracing -- the most popular method -- the artist would have to light each "dot" or pixel on the sphere, a time-consuming process. If the planet was supposed to look like it was moving, the artist would have to repeat the process for each microscopic turn.

"I thought, `There's got to be a better way,' " she said.

Mowery wrote a computer program that "cuts" the moving spheres into crescents. Then she used more programming to shift each of the pixels making up the crescents toward a light source, instead of individually lighting each one.

Another program she's written does something similar with any smooth surface. And Mowery is working on a way to duplicate her success for any surface -- smooth, rough or otherwise.

As a semifinalist, Mowery earns a $1,000 scholarship and another $1,000 for River Hill's science department.

If named a finalist, Mowery will win a laptop computer, a trip to Washington for final judging, and a $5,000 scholarship.

If she makes it to the top 10, she could win a scholarship ranging from $20,000 to $75,000, depending on where she places. The top prize is a $100,000, four-year scholarship.

Self-motivated

Mowery's computer science teacher and independent study mentor, Sharon Kramer, said the fact that the Intel judges deemed her a semifinalist indicates that her research is groundbreaking.

"She's done it all without a technical mentor," Kramer said. "She taught herself how to do the math. She just worked independently with the [computer] programs, teaching herself what she needed to know. I'm so excited for her."

During her research, Mowery said she had "no life." Fitting in research and testing programs between her other classes left little free time.

She did manage to see a movie, she said. "At least one. At least `Star Wars.' " And she found time for an hour or two of the "X-Files," "Now and Again" and "The Simpsons." Other than that, Mowery spends much of her free time on the computer, playing games.

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