Today's Winners, Tomorrow's Nobel Laureates

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Washington--In the summer of 1979, Gary M. Griner Jr. saw a design for a seismograph in Scientific American magazine. Using about $40 worth of materials and modifying the design slightly, he built his own version of the device and placed it in the crawlspace beneath his parents' Huntsville, Ala., home.

A kind-hearted instrument manufacturer gave him additional equipment that recorded graphically the earth tremors picked up by the seismograph.

In the course of 18 months, Mr. Griner, who is 17 years old, recorded earthquake activity in Japan, Alaska, the Indian Ocean and elsewhere around the world--from distances of up to 10,510 miles.

(He also recorded, inadvertently, the activity of a mouse that lived in the crawlspace, whose passage through the sensitive instruments left a record of a small flurry of mousequakes.)

Speed of Earthquake Waves

As part of his investigation, Mr. Griner correlated his data with reports from the U.S. Geological Survey, the federal agency that monitors earthquakes. Then, with information on 53 earthquake tremors, he determined the speed of earthquake waves through the center of the earth.

Last week, Mr. Griner and his seismograph traveled to the Capital to participate in a five-day Science Talent Institute. He was joined by the 39 other high-school seniors--27 boys and 13 girls--from 16 states who were also finalists in this year's Westinghouse Science Talent Search.

The finalists in the 41-year-old competition, which is sponsored jointly by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation and Science Service, a nonprofit education organization, were selected from the nearly 1,000 high-school seniors in 49 states who entered science projects in the competition.

Ten scholarship winners and two alternates were chosen from among the 40 finalists; the top 300 entrants were recommended to colleges and universities as promising young scientists.

During the five-day program in Washing-ton, the students' projects--and the students--were scrutinized by eight scientists who made up the panel of judges. The students also met with other scientists and government officials, including Vice President George Bush.

Their projects covered virtually all fields of scientific inquiry.

Reena B. Gordon, the 16-year-old from Brooklyn, N.Y., who won the $12,000 first-place scholarship, constructed a mathematical model that she believes represents the process listeners follow automatically in correctly interpreting the natural ambiguities in language.

Ms. Gordon, now first in her class at Midwood High School, plans to attend Harvard and to pursue a research career in the pioneering field of artificial intelligence. Her project, she said, grew from her equally strong interests in mathematics and language.

The students are regarded as among the most promising young scientists in the U.S.

About 70 percent of the talent-search winners (old enough to have done so) have earned Ph.D.'s, a figure that Westinghouse officials say is more than two-and-a-half times the normal rate for college graduates. Many go on to earn some of the greatest honors that science can offer.

Out of approximately 1,600 finalists over 41 years, 16 have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Within the last 10 years, five have won Nobel prizes, in-cluding Roald Hoffman, the Cornell University chemist who was a 1955 Science Talent Search finalist, and won the Nobel prize in chemistry last year. (The competition has earned the nickname "Nobel Farm Club.") And two former winners have won the Fields medal--a mathematics award that some consider more elusive than the coveted Nobel.

The Science Talent Search was developed as, and remains, a means of encouraging high-school seniors to pursue careers in science and engineering. All of the 40 finalists receive some financial reward in addition to the free trip to Washington.

Intangible Rewards

But for many entrants, the greatest rewards of winning--and of doing the research in the first place--are intangible. "It's just so interesting to keep learning about these things," said Lynne P. Snyder of Smithtown, N.Y., who won a $5,000 scholarship for her research on red-blood-cell membranes. Ms. Snyder, fearful that she would not have access to the facilities that would allow her to finish her research, stayed in New York when her family moved to Rhode Island last summer.

"It's fantastic," said John D. Goldman, a 17-year-old from Evanston, Ill., of the trip to Washington. His research involved the study of a chemical reaction; he "examined the Fries rearrangement for thymyl acetate using aluminum chloride as the catalyst, and observed the effects of varying the ratio of catalyst to substrate on the reaction products," according to an official description of his project.

Interesting though he found his research, Mr. Goldman believed that the subject matter was a little dry to make a lively exhibit. So he exercised his option to create an exhibit around another of his interests, shortwave-radio.

"It would in no way, shape, or form make a difference if there were no prize money involved," said Jared A. Silverman, a 17-year-old from West Long Branch, N.J., who investigated the means by which an intracellular parasite acquires a vital energy-carrying compound. It is the recognition of one's achievement, he said, that is important.

'Members of a Family'

The finalists were also pleased to have a chance to meet others their own age whose interest in and knowledge of science are as great as their own. "Here, all of us 40 are members of a family, and we're all very much proud of being together," said Ogan Gurel, the 17-year-old from Stuyvesant High School in New York City who was chosen by the other finalists to speak at the black-tie awards dinner that ended the trip.

As a side benefit, noted several of the young men, it was also enjoyable to find that some of the finalists were young women.

The 12 top finalists were: Sharon Marcus, Jamaica High School, Flushing, N.Y., second alternate; John R. Malinowski, Half Hollow Hills High School East, Dix Hills, N.Y., first alternate; Lynne P. Snyder, Smithtown High School West, Smithtown, N.Y., 10th place; Saechin Kim, Bronx High School of Science, Long Island City, N.Y., ninth place; Noam D. Elkies, Stuyvesant High School, New York City, eighth place; Niels P. Mayer, Corona del Mar High School, Corona del Mar, Calif., seventh place; Mitchell Tsai, Theodore Roosevelt High School, Kent, Ohio, sixth place; Theron W. Stanford, San Marino High School, San Marino, Calif., fifth place; Helen E. Getto, Lane Technical High School, Chicago, fourth place; Ogan Gurel, Stuyvesant High School, New York City, third place; Ronald M. Kantor, Riverdale Country School, Bronx, N.Y., second place; Reena B. Gordon, Midwood High School, Brooklyn, N.Y., first place.

Vol. 01, Issue 24

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