Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Intel Talent Search Finalists

Suman Guha Mozumder
The Intel Science Talent Search (Intel STS) is the oldest and most prestigious pre-college science competition in the United States. It encourages students to tackle challenging scientific questions and develop the skills necessary to solve the problems of tomorrow. Each year, 300 semifinalists are selected from a pool of approximately 1,700 applicants from across the nation to compete for $1.25 million in scholarships and awards.Here Suman Guha Mozumder speaks to the five finalists of Indian origin, and finds a common trait -- they are all rooted in tradition while aiming for the stars.

Math for world's sake
For Akhil Mathew of Madison, New Jersey, promoting the sciences and mathematics is a life ambition. "It seems doing that would be necessary to address many of the world's current problems," says the 18-year-old Intel Science Talent Search finalist, who entered a project in mathematics.Akhil was born in India to Thomas and Rama Madhavarao, but he has spent most of his life in New Jersey.According to Intel, Akhil combines algebraic geometry, representation theory and category theory in his work on Deligne categories of complex rank. Deligne created a large family of categories parametrised by complex numbers which interpolate classical categories, ones in which the complex number in question is a positive integer. In his project, Akhil showed that under certain finiteness assumptions important properties of these categories are determined by constructible sets. He then showed that these properties hold generically if they hold on a sufficiently large set of parameters.Akhil is a tutor in chemistry, math and French at Madison High School, where he is also active in the chess club. Since eighth grade, he has taken courses at Drew University, where he recently assisted in preparing a math textbook for publication.He is moderator of an online Johns Hopkins University math forum. "I play tennis casually and volunteer at the public library as a chess teacher for elementary school students," he adds.He says his former mentor and current teacher Sinan Gunturk of New York University taught him a great deal about analysis and got him seriously interested in mathematical research. Akhil hopes to continue his studies at Harvard or MIT. "I am very glad to have received the finalist award," he says, "and look forward to presenting my work in Washington, DC."

The mathematician philosopher
Arjun Ranganath Puranik turns philosophical when asked about his goal in life. "I think we are only truly happy when we help people somehow," says the 17-year-old from Palatine, Illinois. "Even helping one person has a positive impact on society at large."He submitted a mathematics project to the Intel Science Talent Search that classifies the representations of rational Cherednik algebras, which have applications in quantum physics.According to Intel, Arjun's research gives a deepened understanding of H3, the group of symmetries of the regular icosahedron. He studies an algebraic structure built from H3, called the rational Cherednik algebra. His classification of finite dimensional representations of this algebra provides useful linear algebra information about this complicated structure. His result contributes to the efforts to classify all rational Cherednik algebras.Arjun, who was born in Karnataka to engineer parents Ranganath and Parimala Puranik and who has been in the United States since he was in kindergarten, is first in his class of 747 at William Fremd High School where he is managing editor of the newspaper, lead member of the math team and captain of the scholastic and science bowl teams."My parents and my older brother have encouraged and mentored me to pursue my passion in math and science by example and by direction," he says. "My family has always been and is continuing to support me in all of my pursuits." Though his academic pursuits keep him busy, he loves to play tennis and has played at the varsity level the last two years."I also love to listen to music in general, and have been trained in playing classical piano and in Hindustani vocals," says Arjun. He hopes to get into either Stanford or MIT following the footsteps of his brother, who has just graduated fromStanford.

Helping hand, through science
I know this sounds like a bit of a cliche and definitely idealistic coming from a 17-year-old, but I want to make a difference," says Sunanda Sharma, Intel finalist from Shrewsbury High School, Massachusetts. "I've been very lucky with the resources and support that I have, and have a responsibility to help others who maybe aren't so fortunate," she says.Her Intel project mirrors that philosophy. Sunanda, who was born in New Delhi and immigrated to the United States when she was three, investigated the effect of an enriched environment on autism-relevant behaviour for her Intel project in behavioural and social sciences. Focusing on an autism candidate gene called PTEN, active in embryo formation and development, she studied juvenile and adult mice, using those with PTEN irregularities as autism models. She believes her findings show that environmental enrichment can be used to influence deficits in brain circuitry caused by genetic abnormality even when the gene is very early-acting. She is the co-author of a paper on the subject being prepared for publication.Sunanda, who "can't wait until March to go to DC," says, "I'm very excited and extremely grateful to Intel, my mentor and the lab in which I worked, and my school. Of course, I really appreciate my parents and brother for supporting me through the last several months and years."Science, as they say, is in her blood. Her father is a scientist."Definitely they [her parents] were a big influence and inspired me to pursue science since I was a kid," says Sunanda, daughter of Jitendra and Usha Sharma. "On a more personal note, one person who has possibly influenced and inspired me the most is my older brother Samvaran, who has taught me so much about science, research, and life in general," she adds.She is president of her school's speech and debate club, which is made up of about 70 students who compete in local and national tournaments each year. She also plays clarinet in the school band, and loves to play piano on her own. "I also am learning to compose and mix audio tracks," she adds proudly. Sunanda, who has won numerous honours in state and regional science fairs, hopes to attend MIT or Harvard.

Juggling Bharat Natyam and Andromeda
Namrata Anand's goal in life is simple -- to impact as many people as possible in the most positive way that she can. "I believe that if I go about life trying to improve the lives of those around me, I will not only help impact society at large but will live a fulfilling life myself," she says.And for the 17-year-old from Los Altos Hills, California, scientific research is a great way to reach and influence people across the globe."My parents [RK and Nita Anand] and my sister have always encouraged me to shoot for the stars," she says.She has done just that for her Intel Science Talent Search project in physics and space sciences. She used spectral analysis and nearly a decade's worth of data to expose key information about the chemical enrichment history of the Andromeda galaxy. She believes that chemical analysis projects like hers, focusing on patterns of metallicity, have the potential to identify locations in space with a high probability of extraterrestrial life. Her work will form a major section of a paper being prepared for publication in the Astrophysical Journal; she will be a co-author."I am incredibly honoured," she says about being an Intel Search finalist. "The research opportunity I was given over this past summer at University of California-Santa Cruz was a phenomenal one, and I can't imagine having brought myproject to this level without the help of my mentor, Dr Raja Thakurta, and my school's science department. I am thrilled at the thought of traveling to Washington, DC to hear all about the amazing projects 39 other students have completed."Namrata, born and raised in the Bay Area, says her family has had a great influence over her and that her love of writing, physics and the performing arts can all be traced back to some inspiring aunt, grandparent or a second cousin. She is part of her school's conservatory, which provides students with a forum to explore their passion for the arts and develop their creative abilities."I am also learning Bharata Natyam and Carnatic vocal music. My gurus are not just extremely talented but they are my role models in more ways than I can count," she says. She also loves to run, play basketball, and is a passionate football fan.Namrata, who plans to attend Harvard or Stanford, says her Hindu religion and Indian culture have influenced many aspects of her life in the most brilliant, positive ways."The past 17 years have been awesome," she says, "and I can't express how grateful I am for all the opportunities I have been given."

The green warrior
Raman Venkat Nelakanti, 17, is passionate about doing something to solve the global energy crisis; and he believes biology can help."Ten years down the line," the Intel Science Talent Search finalist says in conversation with India Abroad, "I want to be at the forefront of biological energy production, which is a recently developing science. The issue over producing
renewable energy is important to me because I want to keep the earth sustainable. I hope that my future research endeavors will contribute to that." Plano, Texas-born and Bay Area, California-raised Raman feels people are putting off the inevitable effects of global warming and energy shortages as something of the future.Raman investigated the green algae chlamydomonas reinhardtii, a potential source of hydrogen, a renewable biofuel, for his Intel plant sciences project. These algae require an oxygen-free environment for producing hydrogen. Depriving algae of sulfur causes them to consume oxygen in their environment, thereby maintaining a balance where they can produce hydrogen. At the same time, complete sulfur deprivation inhibits algae growth and introduces inefficiencies into the process."I found an optimal amount of sulfur and a process that could be used for algae to produce hydrogen gas and have normal growth," he explains. "I devised a method that improves the efficiency and sustainability of algal hydrogen production." When he got to know he was an Intel finalist, he felt "absolutely surprised, amazed and excited. I am really looking forward to going to DC and meeting with many great scientists and other finalists from across the nation."Raman says his parents Bhava and Tara Nelakanti have always been there to encourage him in his interests, be it science fairs, music or cricket. "I really love playing cricket and have been playing in the California Cricket Association since seventh grade. I still play in the adult league matches on the weekends," he says.He also learns Carnatic vocal music and enjoys gardening at home and at his Sunnyvale Community Garden. He volunteers for the community garden and a swim center called Abilities United, where he helps with aquatic therapy for children with disabilities."The Bay Area has been an amazing place to grow up," says Raman, who also attributes his success to the amazing teachers who helped him along the way. "Everyone at school is intelligent, friendly and supportive," he adds. "The community has really helped me grow as a scientist."

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