San Ramon, Pleasanton teens finalists in elite science contest
By Lou Fancher
Someday, their projects may mean that electronics are more efficient, cameras are better focused and fuels are climate-friendly. But even if that day never comes, three 17-year-old scientists already have put the Tri-Valley on the map.
The students -- two from the same school -- are among the 40 finalists in this year's Intel Science Talent Search, one of the country's most prestigious and competitive awards in science and technology for high school students. More than 1,800 students entered.
Seniors Janel Lee, of Amador Valley High School in Pleasanton, and Saranesh Prembabu and Augustine Chemparathy, of Dougherty Valley High in San Ramon, will travel in March to Washington, D.C., where nine students whose projects demonstrate excellent potential in basic research, global good and innovation will receive more than $1 million in awards, including three top awards of $150,000.
Despite their projects' humble origins -- a shiny speck of atoms no bigger than a pinhead, a mathematical algorithm, oily algae -- the students say big awards pale in light of the sheer joy of applying ideas and discovering solutions. Even finding new questions to ask are worthy results, they say.
Working with perovskites, a material commonly found in electronic sensors and memory devices, Prembabu channeled his fondness for nonintuitive, natural world realization into improved energy storage. Ever since he saw sunlight funnel through a magnifying lens and set paper aflame, he's been fascinated by breaking physical barriers.
"I found a way to exploit the material's magnetism and electrical behavior," he says, making a complex manipulation to reduce energy waste and increase an electronic device's high-speed computational capacity sound like a breeze.
But it wasn't easy, and Prembabu says temperature and pressure variances while growing the layers of tiny perovskites caused "lots of failures and random things" that required persistence.
Similarly, Lee's determination conquered a two-tier problem. She created algorithms eliminating the blurring and ghosting effects that happen when real-world, high-dynamic-range (HDR) scenes are captured by cameras that create the photo by stacking layers of low dynamic range images -- and a second-stage equation that carries the innovation to mobile devices.
"It gets rid of distortion," Lee says. "Big companies like Samsung and Apple market tools I never use because it would take five times as long to process an image using their advanced technology. Plus, it would be costly."
Lee says playing the violin, help and encouragement from her dad, and yes, "frustration with my Samsung smartphone," were key factors that fueled her drive to try numerous methods, compile the best of other photo-reproduction methodologies into her algorithms and not give up.
"I didn't even expect to get this far. I'm most excited to have experts from my field criticize or validate my project," she says of the upcoming competition.
Chemparathy is most grateful for the influence of Katherine Huang, who teaches honors anatomy and physiology at Dougherty Valley.
"She got me into research as a teacher's aide in ninth grade," he says.
Assisting Huang with a molecular biology project at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Chemparathy learned he's motivated when a problem plays out in hands-on experiences.
"When I'm seeing enzymes in the lab, I'm fascinated," he says.
An interest in biofuels and viable alternative energy sources led him to "play" with algae -- teasing out its specific properties, testing its response to nitrogen starvation, determining the factors that produce or inhibit algae's oil production.
"Each year, we pour tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; they're greenhouse gases that are poisonous. We have to mitigate the damage," he says. "This is a cool way to do this within our current consumer culture. It doesn't ask you to drive a different car or change other things."
Although Talent Search finalists work independently or with professional mentors outside of their schools, most teachers are aware of their students' projects. Dougherty Valley chemistry teacher Ethan Schnell and math teacher Gregory Duran say the two finalist students share similar traits, including computational skill and curiosity.
Schnell says Prembabu's ability to relate math and science is "unparalleled in my 12 years of teaching."
Duran aligns himself with his colleague, saying "Saran does math like the famous Richard Feynman did physics. Saran takes apart every math concept and rebuilds it in his own way so he can explain it in a very simple and creative manner."