Imagination, Knowledge Distinguish Finalists of Science Talent Search

By Susan Walton — March 14, 1984 8 min read

Washington--Douglas Galarus first read about the traveling salesman in a book entitled Problems Too Difficult for Computers. A sophomore at Sentinel High School in Missoula, Mont., he was taking a course on advanced problems in science, and he needed a problem that he could work on all year. The traveling salesman--who has been well studied elsewhere but not in Missoula--was, he decided, sufficiently challenging.

The problem involves a hypothetical salesman who must find the shortest way to travel to a group of cities, visiting each one only once. With 10 cities, there are 3.5 million possible routes, and that number increases rapidly as cities are added. Even a high-speed computer cannot solve the problem in a period of time shorter than millions of years.

Neither, of course, could Mr. Galarus. But during the two years he spent analyzing the problem in the science-problems class, he came up with a formula that allowed him to find an itinerary that was “close to the shortest,” with a 5-percent margin of error. (His mother, one of several people who sat down with a pencil and a map of the United States to match wits with the formula, found an itinerary that was only 240 miles longer.)

The figure he arrived at--14,652 miles to visit 58 cities--was close enough for the judges who picked the 40 finalists in the 43rd annual Westinghouse Science Talent Search. Last week, Mr. Galarus and the 39 other finalists came here with their projects, met with judges, and explained their findings to interested members of the public during two four-hour exhibits at the National Academy of Sciences.

The finalists, who came from 19 states, also attended a play and met briefly with Vice President George Bush, who suggested that Mr. Galarus’s project might be called “The Traveling Vice President Problem.”

Then, at a black-tie banquet, the students listened as the judges announced that Christopher R. Montanaro, a senior at Oxford Hills High School in South Paris, Me., had won the $12,000 scholarship for his project in molecular genetics. The Westinghouse Electric Corporation, which co-sponsors the competition with Science Service, a nonprofit educational institution based in Washington, provides the $89,500 that is distributed in scholarships and awards.

Receipt of the first-place award is also something of a predictor of success; five past winners later won Nobel Prizes and many more have gone on to make their mark in science. The judges are looking for more than scientific knowledge; they also seek imagination and other qualities that are less readily measured but equally important to success in science.

Research Careers

Many of the finalists this year said they planned careers in scientific or biomedical research. Mr. Galarus, however, said he plans to major in mathematics education at Villanova University and to teach in a secondary school.

“I know it sounds kind of unusual,” he conceded.

He appeared to be a minority of one among the finalists who stood with their projects in the National Academy’s Great Hall.

Eliahu H. Niewood, a senior at Marsha Stern Talmudic Academy-Yeshiva University High School for Boys, said he hopes to study engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His project on “the mathematics of chaos” tackled a topic that mathematicians only recently began to study. He started working on the problem last summer while studying at the University of Southern California.

Mr. Niewood, like many of the other finalists, said his interest in science began many years ago. “A long time ago, I wanted to go into history or social studies,” he said. “But that was a long time ago.”

“People ask how long I’ve been interested in science,” said Derek A. Ott, a student at Shawnee Mission East High School in Shawnee Mission, Kan. “It’s kind of ridiculous, because I can’t remember a time I wasn’t interested in how things work.”

Atom Sarkar’s interest in malaria parasites began four years ago when he and his family traveled to India. His 7-year-old sister became ill with malaria, although she was taking the recommended drugs to prevent it.

Mr. Sarkar, who is a student at New York City’s Stuyvesant High School, said he wondered then why she became ill despite taking the drug. He learned that the parasites can mutate until they become resistant to the drug. But, he theorized, if you “understand what a parasite is doing” from studying and characterizing the proteins, you can identify the most important proteins. And those proteins, he explained, “would be very unlikely to mutate.” Thus, a drug targeted at the key proteins could render the parasite innocuous.

A scientist at Rockefeller University agreed to let Mr. Sarkar work in his laboratory, which the student did all summer, seven days a week, staying as long as necessary until an experiment was complete.

“It was fortunate that I was able to come up with startling results,” he said, pointing to the part of his exhibit that showed that four different strains of malaria all contained the same protein. This, Mr. Sarkar suggests, means that it is a particularly critical protein, and hence a good target for an anti-malarial agent.

Ideally, he would like a career that combines research with clinical work with patients. He hopes to attend the seven-year medical program at Brown University.

Scientific Backgrounds

Rachel A. Altura, a student at Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in Flushing, N.Y., has been working her way down from rodents to genes in her relatively short career in scientific research. She began in the 7th grade experimenting with the diet of mice, which came out of the study unscathed. She then studied the effects of a chemical similar to magnesium on the heart rate of daphnia, a small freshwater crustacean.

The following year, she studied the effects of hallucinogens on rats. Then she worked on fruit flies in a genetic study, and later submitted a project to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that dealt with chromosomal changes in space.

The project that brought her to Washington grew from her work in the High School Honors Science Program at Michigan State University. During the summer, she cloned, isolated, and purified a fragment of a human gene that is structurally similar to a viral gene involved with cancer development. A better understanding of the human gene, she theorizes, may lead to a better understanding of the mechanisms that trigger cancer.

Ms. Altura, like many of the finalists, comes from a scientific family. Both of her parents are researchers, and she grew up hearing about science.

“I thought of doing other things,” she said, noting that she now plans to study molecular biology and hopes to attend Harvard University. “I had to discover for myself that I was interested.”

The first-place winner in the annual search receives the $12,000 scholarship; the second-place and third-place winners receive $10,000; those who place fourth, fifth, and sixth receive $7,500; and the seventh- through 10th-place winners receive $5,000. The other finalists receive $500 each. In the following list, the students’ hometowns follow the name of their high schools.

First place: Christopher R. Montanaro, Oxford Hills High School, South Paris, Me.; second place: Sandy Chang, Bronx High School of Science, New York; third place: Michael Tai-ju Lin, La Jolla High School, La Jolla, Calif.; fourth place: Roger C. Hayward, Falmouth High School, Falmouth, Mass.; fifth place: Eva L. Assimakopoulos, Bronx High School of Science, Ft. George Hill, N.Y.; sixth place: Atom Sarker, Stuyvesant High School, New York; seventh place: Lisa Szubin, Ramaz School, Teaneck, N.J.; eighth place: Peter A. Mead, Greenwich High School, Greenwich, Conn.; ninth place: Jessica Riskin, Stuyvesant High School, New York; 10th place: Mark C. Hamburg, H.H. Dow High School, Midland, Mich.

Other finalists: David M. Zielke, Merritt Island High School, Merritt Island, Fla.; Nathan A. Shapira, Briarcliff High School, Atlanta, Ga.; Matthew M. Zell, Evanston Township High School, Evanston, Ill.; Ann R. Davis, Mather High School, Chicago; Maxwell J. Brothers, Bloomington High School North, Bloomington, Ind.; Derek A. Ott, Shawnee Mission East High School, Prairie Village, Kan.; Margaret Van-yu Meng, Centennial High School, Columbia, Md.; Jan W. Rivkin, Centennial City High School, Ellicott City, Md.; Carmela C. Amato, Mount Saint Joseph Academy, East Boston, Mass.; William P. Minyard, Starkville High School, Starkville, Miss.; Albert Fook Ming Chew, Carl Junction Senior High School, Carl Junction, Mo.; Douglas E. Galarus, Sentinel High School, Missoula, Mont.; Eliahu H. Niewood, The Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy-Yeshiva University High School for Boys, Englewood, N.J.; Brett D. van de Sande, Neptune Senior High School, Neptune, N.J.; Michah El-Hakim Sageev, Amherst Central High School, Amherst, N.Y.; Sun Hye Yang, Baldwin Senior High School, Baldwin, N.Y.; Terry Yen, Benjamin N. Cardoza High School, Bayside, N.Y.; Ira J. Haimowitz, Bronx High School of Science, Bronx, N.Y.; Jonathan M. Harwitz, City Honors High, Buffalo, N.Y.; Rachel A. Altura, Benjamin Cardozo High School, Flushing, N.Y.; James J. Nahirny, Benjamin N. Cardozo High School, Flushing, N.Y.; Bonnie R. Zietchick, Stuyvesant High School, Flushing, N.Y.; Jeffrey J. Trester, J.L. Miller Great Neck North Senior High School, Great Neck, N.Y.; Steven J. Frucht, Hunter College High School, New York; R.A. Hiranya Jayatilleke, Bronx High School of Science, New York; Daniel P. Schrag, Fieldston School, New York; Ken Chang Lin, Plainview-Old Bethpage High School, Plainview, N.Y.; Mark Metzger, Theodore Roosevelt High School, Kent, Ohio; Ian Gordon, Stanfield High School, Oregon; Tamara Harvey, James Madison Memorial High School, Madison, Wis.

A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 1984 edition of Education Week as Imagination, Knowledge Distinguish Finalists of Science Talent Search