Young researchers take home almost $5 million at 2019 Intel ISEF competition | Science News for Students

Young researchers take home almost $5 million at 2019 Intel ISEF competition

Three top winners created medical advances; fourth developed jellyfish-inspired system for aquatic propulsion
May 17, 2019 — 5:16 pm EST
the top three award winners for 2019 Intel ISEF

The top three award winners rejoice in their triumph at the 2019 Intel ISEF competition in Phoenix, Ariz. From left: Allison Jia, 17; Krithik Ramesh, 16; and Rachel Seevers, 17.

C. Ayers Photography/SSP

PHOENIX, Ariz. — More than 1,800 teen researchers came to the Valley of the Sun this week. Those who shone brightest took home big prizes from the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, or ISEF. Top winner Krithik Ramesh earned $75,000. He developed a system to help spinal surgeons perform operations more accurately and more quickly. At its heart is a Pokémon Go–like augmented-reality system.

“This is surreal and very humbling,” Krithik said upon learning of his award this morning.

“There’s a lot to process right now.” This 16-year-old attends Cherry Creek High School in Greenwood Village, Colo.

Krithik’s project claimed the Gordon E. Moore award. It’s named for Intel’s co-founder. Other winners took home sizeable awards as well, this year. In all, almost one in every three of this year’s ISEF finalists received some sort of recognition for their research. Together, these awards totaled about $5 million.

ISEF has been honoring young researchers since 1950. This competition was created and is still run by Society for Science & the Public, or SSP. It is the world’s largest international pre-college science competition. Now sponsored by Intel, the 2019 ISEF brought together students from more than 80 countries, regions and territories.

“I am inspired by all of the ingenuity on display this week,” said SSP President Maya Ajmera. She’s also the publisher of Science News for Students. “Congratulations to our winners and all our finalists who are demonstrating that world-changing ideas can come from anywhere in the world.”

Surgeon’s helper

Whether you’re putting together a piece of furniture or an injured patient’s spinal column, it helps to have an instruction manual and diagrams. Usually, a surgeon figures out the best way to perform an operation by studying a patient’s X-rays and other scans.

But Krithik developed a high-tech system that adds a touch of virtual reality. It relies on a visor-like headset. Its see-through screen displays a computerized image of what the patient’s spine should look like after surgery.

a photo of Krithik Ramesh and his augmented-reality system
Krithik developed an augmented-reality system to help surgeons fix spines better and more quickly. He’s pulled the glasses up above his eyes. Those glasses would normally display important information for the surgeon.
C. Ayers Photography/SSP

Krithik tested his system by analyzing thousands of publicly available medical scans of patients’ spines. Some X-ray-based 3-D scans were taken by computerized tomography. Others had come from magnetic-resonance-imaging. The teen also analyzed data from 34 actual surgeries.

His tests showed that his system could map a patient’s spine and suggest the correct surgical approach almost 97 percent of the time. The system also pinpointed where any plates, rods or screws should go. And it pinpointed their recommended placement to within 1.33 millimeters (1/20th of an inch).

The new system could readily replace the current method of navigating during surgery, says Krithik. Currently, doctors use a piece of equipment called a fluoroscope. In essence, it provides continuous real-time X-rays of a patient’s body. That means it also exposes both the patient and the surgical team to a lot of radiation. Another benefit of Krithnik’s system: The headset is portable. That means it should be possible to use it not only in urban hospitals, but also in remote clinics or war zones.

Besides winning ISEF’s top prize, Krithik’s project was the top winner in the biomedical engineering category.

When brain cells die

A protein known as tau helps transport a variety of substances throughout brain cells. In its normal form, called “native tau,” it helps nutrients and wastes shuttle around a cell. But when that protein becomes oddly folded, it doesn’t work right, explains Allison Jia. The 17-year old attends The Harker School in San Jose, Calif.

Misfolded tau proteins clump together in brain cells. This interferes with their function. These so-called “toxic tau” proteins can even lead those cells to die, Allison notes. In fact, this tau clumping and cell death is suspected of playing a major role in Alzheimer’s disease.

a photo of Allison Jia shown with her computer
Allison Jia shows off her computer display of labeled tau proteins, cellular actors that when misfolded can potentially harm the brain and play a role in Alzheimer’s disease.
C. Ayers Photography/SSP

In living patients, doctors don’t really have a good way to follow tau clumping or its effects. Allison made that her goal.

For her project, Allison found a way to make tau proteins easy to see. She tagged the proteins with nanometer-sized particles of semiconductor materials called quantum dots. (They’re made from the same material found in computer chips). When illuminated with ultraviolet light, the dots glowed, which made them easy to track.

She could clearly see the tagged proteins move inside a living brain cell growing in a dish. She also saw that when the toxic tau bumped into a native tau protein, the normal protein took on the toxic protein’s odd shape. It’s not clear why, she says. But what she witnessed could mimic how tau proteins inside the brain of an Alzheimer’s patient behave, causing the disease to progress.

Results of Allison’s tests could help scientists better understand how tau proteins move within cells, she says. They also might help researchers test possible treatments in living cells.

Allison received $50,000 as one of two Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award winners this year. Her research also claimed top prize in cellular and molecular biology.

Jellyfish propulsion

Jellyfish appear to be lazy swimmers. But maybe it’s better to think of them as “energy efficient,” says Rachel Seevers, 17. She’s a senior at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington, Ky. Jellyfish and their relatives take in a limited number of calories but often need to travel long distances. Rachel wondered if engineers could take advantage of the creatures’ tricks for efficient movement.

In a sense, jellyfish are jet-powered. They slurp water into their “bell,” the cavity in their dome-shaped body, then squeeze it out. But they don’t send out a concentrated jet of water, as squid and octopuses do. Instead, a jellyfish squeezes out a donut-shaped swirl of water called a ring vortex. (Think of it as the underwater version of a smoke ring blown by a cigar-smoker.) Sending a ring vortex downward propels the body of a jellyfish upward.

a photo of Rachel Seevers holding her novel jellyfish-inspired propulsion system
Rachel Seevers holds her novel jellyfish-inspired propulsion system. The young engineer hopes it may one day drive autonomous underwater vehicles.
C. Ayers Photography/SSP

Rachel’s aim has been to improve the energy efficiency of autonomous underwater vehicles, also known as AUVs. These sometimes look like torpedoes with wings — nothing like jellyfish. AUVs are usually driven by a battery-powered propeller. Rachel took that propulsion design and then added a pump that could send a ring of water jets out the back and around the propeller.

Rachel couldn’t make the torpedo flex as a jellyfish does. But she was able to simulate the animal’s repeated spurts of jet propulsion. She did that by having the pump cycle on and then off for a few seconds at a time. Meanwhile, its propeller spun nonstop.

Rachel’s propulsion model was able to provide 37 percent more oomph from the same amount of battery power than a traditional AUV propeller alone. That could be a big boost for UAVs like those that scientists use to study the ocean. The teen hopes her jellyfish-inspired system might one day lead to data gathering missions that can travel farther on a single charge.

Rachel’s project led the pack in engineering mechanics. And like Allison, Rachel snagged one of the Intel Foundation Young Scientist Awards worth $50,000.

No-pain cancer screening

Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. More than 9,000 people die from it in the United States each year. But statistics show that when caught early, 90 percent of patients can be cured, notes 15-year-old Shriya Reddy. She’s a 10th-grader at Northville High School in Michigan. Currently, she notes, taking a biopsy — a small chunk of tissue for analysis — is the best way to diagnose the disease. But such a test can cost hundreds of dollars. Plus, it can take two weeks for test results to come back to the doctor. The biopsies also can be painful and the extraction site may even get infected.

a photo of Shriya Reddy standing in front of her poster
Shriya Reddy stands in front of her poster. It describes her new painless and low-cost technique for helping diagnose melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer.
C. Ayers Photography/SSP

Shriya’s advance was the creation of a new type of contrast agent. Think of it as a dye. It’s some substance that helps doctors visually discriminate between different types of tissue (such as cancer versus normal). The main ingredients in her contrast agent are antibodies that bind better to melanoma cells than to healthy cells. To make them show up, she found a way to bond tiny nanospheres of gold to these antibodies. Clumps of those tiny particles show up as bright spots when they’re illuminated with near-infrared light. Shriya’s tests revealed that cancerous spots showed up best when the gold nanospheres measured between 5 and 10 nanometers (or about 20- to 40-billionths of an inch) across.

Here’s how Shriya’s new test would work. Doctors would dab a small bit of cream or oil containing the gold-tagged antibodies onto a patient’s skin. Then they’d shine the near-infrared light on the suspicious spot. Healthy cells would remain dark. Cancer cells, in contrast, would glow brightly. Such a test not only would be painless, but results also would be available at once. If a test suggested the spot was cancerous, the doctor could schedule a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis.

Doctors now conduct about 1.5 million biopsies for melanoma each year. Shriya estimates that if her new test had been used on these patients first, 60 percent of them would have avoided the need for that painful biopsy. Avoiding unneeded biopsies, she says, also could save hundreds of millions of dollars in healthcare costs each year.

Shriya’s project was deemed best in the biomedical and health sciences category. It also claimed the newly established Craig R. Barrett Award for Innovation. It brought the teen $10,000. (This award is named for a former chief executive officer of the Intel Corp.)

Other major Intel ISEF 2018 award winners

The following students each won best-of-category awards worth $5,000 in this year’s competition:

Animal Sciences: Dylan Bagnall, 17, and Richard Beattie, 17, of The King’s Hospital School in Dublin, Ireland

Behavioral and Social Sciences: Giovanni Santucci, 18, of Ossining High School in Ossining, N.Y.

Biochemistry:  Annika Morgan, 18, of Joel Barlow High School in Redding, Conn.

Chemistry: Helena Jiang, 16, of F.W. Buchholz High School in Gainesville, Fla.

Computational Biology and Bioinformatics: Jason Ping, 17, of Bergen County Academies in Hackensack, N.J.

Earth and Environmental Sciences: Katie Lu, 18, of Central High School in Springfield, Mo.

Embedded Systems: Max von Wolff, 19, of Megina Gymnasium Mayen in Mayen, Germany

Energy: Chemical: Shicheng Hu, 17, of Shanghai Foreign Language School Affiliated to SISU in Shanghai, China

Energy: Physical: Joonyoung Lee, 17, and Mincheol Park, 18, of Korea Science Academy of KAIST in Busan, South Korea

Environmental Engineering: Adyant Shankar, 17, of Nashua High School South in Nashua, N.H.

Materials Science: Adrien Jathe, 17, of Metropolitan School Frankfurt gGmbH in Frankfurt, Germany

Mathematics: AnaMaria Perez, 17, of Albuquerque Academy in Albuquerque, N.M.

Microbiology: Poojan Pandya, 16, of Half Hollow Hills High West School in Dix Hills, N.Y., and Leo Takemaru, 16, of Ward Melville High School in East Setauket, N.Y.

Physics and Astronomy: Kaylie Hausknecht, 17, of Lynbrook Senior High School in Lynbrook, N.Y.

Plant Sciences: Amara Ifeji, 17, of Bangor High School in Bangor, Maine

Robotics and Intelligent Machines: Kevin Meng, 16, of Plano West Senior High School in Plano, Texas

Systems Software: Adam Kelly, 17, of Skerries Community College in Skerries, Ireland

Translational Medical Science: Hannah Herbst, 18, of Florida Atlantic University High School in Boca Raton, Fla.

Six “best of category” winners also earned trips overseas. Others will visit science fairs or attend youth science forums in Europe. Some of the roughly 600 winners at this year's competition even won college scholarships.

Intel is proud, said Pia Wilson-Body, to honor “all of the ISEF finalists on their innovative work.” She’s president of the Intel Foundation. “The work they are doing has the potential to make a better tomorrow for all of us.”

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

3-D     Short for three-dimensional. This term is an adjective for something that has features that can be described in three dimensions — height, width and length. 

augmented reality     A computer-based system that superimposes information (as text and/or images) on top of what's being viewed through goggles, a window or some device (such as a camera). Or, similar to virtual reality, it can place digital illusions into the real world.

Alzheimer’s disease     An incurable brain disease that can cause confusion, mood changes and problems with memory, language, behavior and problem solving. No cause or cure is known.

antibody     Any of a large number of proteins that the body produces from B cells and releases into the blood supply as part of its immune response. The production of antibodies is triggered when the body encounters an antigen, some foreign material. Antibodies then lock onto antigens as a first step in disabling the germs or other foreign substances that were the source of those antigens. 

autonomous     Acting independently. Autonomous vehicles, for instance, pilot themselves based on instructions that have been programmed into their computer guidance system.

battery     A device that can convert chemical energy into electrical energy.

bioinformatics     A research field that uses computers in collecting, classifying, storing and analyzing biological information to better understand genes, their function and their activities on the molecular scale.

biomedical     Having to do with medicine and how it interacts with cells or tissues.

biomedical engineering     Combining engineering and biology to aid human health. Professions in this field develop artificial limbs, use biotechnology to produce new drugs and develop models to understand how diseases work.

biopsy     The removal and examination of a small sample of tissue to discover the presence, cause or extent of a disease, including cancer.

cancer     Any of more than 100 different diseases, each characterized by the rapid, uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. The development and growth of cancers, also known as malignancies, can lead to tumors, pain and death.

cavity     (in geology or physics) A large rigid pocketlike structure. (in biology) An open region pocketlike structure surrounded by tissues. Or (in dentistry) a tiny hole in a tooth that develops over time. Dental cavities are more likely to happen when a person eats a lot of sugar or does not brush and floss regularly. Dentists refer to these as caries.

cell     The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the unaided eye, it consists of a watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall.

computer chip     (also integrated circuit) The computer component that processes and stores information.

computerized tomography     (CT, for short). A special kind of X-ray scanning technology that produces cross-sectional views of the inside of a bone or body.

diagnose     To analyze clues or symptoms in the search for their cause. The conclusion usually results in a diagnosis — identification of the causal problem or disease.

discriminate     (n. discrimination) The detection or recognition of a difference between two or more versions of something. (in social science) To treat groups of people or things differently based a bias about one or more of their attributes (such as race, sex, religion or age).

engineering     The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems.

environmental science     The study of ecosystems to help identify environmental problems and possible solutions. Environmental science can bring together many fields including physics, chemistry, biology and oceanography to understand how ecosystems function and how humans can coexist with them in harmony. People who work in this field are known as environmental scientists.

flex     To bend without breaking. A material with this property is described as flexible.

high school     A designation for grades nine through 12 in the U.S. system of compulsory public education. High-school graduates may apply to colleges for further, advanced education.

infrared     A type of electromagnetic radiation invisible to the human eye. The name incorporates a Latin term and means “below red.” Infrared light has wavelengths longer than those visible to humans. Other invisible wavelengths include X-rays, radio waves and microwaves. Infrared light tends to record the heat signature of an object or environment.

ingenuity     A term for skill, cleverness or inventiveness.

innovation     (v. to innovate; adj. innovative) An adaptation or improvement to an existing idea, process or product that is new, clever, more effective or more practical.

Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF)    Initially launched in 1950, this competition is one of three created (and still run) by the Society for Science & the Public. Each year now, approximately 1,800 high school students from more than 80 countries, regions, and territories are awarded the opportunity to showcase their independent research at Intel ISEF and compete for an average of almost $5 million in prizes. 

materials science     The study of how the atomic and molecular structure of a material is related to its overall properties. Materials scientists can design new materials or analyze existing ones. Their analyses of a material’s overall properties (such as density, strength and melting point) can help engineers and other researchers select materials that are best suited to a new application. 

melanoma     A type of cancer that starts in pigment-making cells called melanocytes, usually in the skin.

molecular biology     The branch of biology that deals with the structure and function of molecules essential to life. Scientists who work in this field are called molecular biologists.

nutrient     A vitamin, mineral, fat, carbohydrate or protein that a plant, animal or other organism requires as part of its food in order to survive.

particle     A minute amount of something.

propulsion     The act or process of driving something forward, using a force. For instance, jet engines are one source of propulsion used for keeping airplanes aloft.

protein     A compound made from one or more long chains of amino acids. Proteins are an essential part of all living organisms. They form the basis of living cells, muscle and tissues; they also do the work inside of cells. Among the better-known, stand-alone proteins are the hemoglobin (in blood) and the antibodies (also in blood) that attempt to fight infections. Medicines frequently work by latching onto proteins.

quantum dot    A virus-sized crystal that has been grown from semiconductor materials or has been etched into them. Its diameter typically will fall in the range of from one nanometer (billionth of a meter) to several dozen nanometers. When illuminated by certain wavelengths of light or stimulated by electricity, a quantum dot will glow brightly.

radiation     (in physics) One of the three major ways that energy is transferred. (The other two are conduction and convection.) In radiation, electromagnetic waves carry energy from one place to another. Unlike conduction and convection, which need material to help transfer the energy, radiation can transfer energy across empty space.

screening     A health test that is done early, before any symptoms are present. That can help find disease when it is easiest to treat. Screenings can include blood tests (such as for HIV, diabetes or high cholesterol), X-rays or scans (such as mammograms for breast cancer).

semiconductor     A material that sometimes conducts electricity. Semiconductors are important parts of computer chips and certain new electronic technologies, such as light-emitting diodes.

simulate     To deceive in some way by imitating the form or function of something. A simulated dietary fat, for instance, may deceive the mouth that it has tasted a real fat because it has the same feel on the tongue — without having any calories. A simulated sense of touch may fool the brain into thinking a finger has touched something even though a hand may no longer exists and has been replaced by a synthetic limb. (in computing) To try and imitate the conditions, functions or appearance of something. Computer programs that do this are referred to as simulations.

statistics     The practice or science of collecting and analyzing numerical data in large quantities and interpreting their meaning. Much of this work involves reducing errors that might be attributable to random variation. A professional who works in this field is called a statistician.

tau protein     A family of proteins that normally stabilize tiny tube-like structures in the axons of neurons — a type of brain cell. In some brain diseases, these proteins may become altered. Now they can form abnormal tangles, which can help kill brain cells.

tissue     Made of cells, it is any of the distinct types of materials that make up animals, plants or fungi. Cells within a tissue work as a unit to perform a particular function in living organisms. Different organs of the human body, for instance, often are made from many different types of tissues.

toxic     Poisonous or able to harm or kill cells, tissues or whole organisms. The measure of risk posed by such a poison is its toxicity.

ultraviolet light     A type of electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength from 10 nanometers to 380 nanometers. The wavelengths are shorter than that of visible light but longer than X-rays.

urban     Of or related to cities, especially densely populated ones or regions where lots of traffic and industrial activity occurs. The development or buildup of urban areas is a phenomenon known as urbanization.

virtual reality     A three-dimensional simulation of the real world that seems very realistic and allows people to interact with it. To do so, people usually wear a special helmet or glasses with sensors.

vortex     (plural: vortices) A swirling whirlpool of some liquid or gas. Tornadoes are vortices, and so are the tornado-like swirls inside a glass of tea that’s been stirred with a spoon. Smoke rings are donut-shaped vortices.

waste     Any materials that are left over from biological or other systems that have no value, so they can be disposed of as trash or recycled for some new use.

X-ray     A type of radiation analogous to gamma rays, but having somewhat lower energy.