Saturday, May 24, 2014

Eight Pinoy high school students had fun at the Intel ISEF 2014 in Los Angeles

This photo-essay appeared in slightly different form in the 23-29 May 2014 issue of FilAm Star, 'the newspaper for Filipinos in mainstream America,' published weekly in San Francisco.  The author/blogger is the Special News/Photo Correspondent-Philippines of the paper.

On the giant screen during the Opening Program: Poster and Team Philippines 2014 members who did the Shout Out. (Photo from Joseph Roni Jacob).

More than 1,700 students from close to 80 countries, regions and territories converged at the Los Angeles Convention Center last week, May 11 to 16 during the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF), the world’s largest research competition for students in grades 9–12, a program of the Society for Science and the Public (SSP).

This year had the highest number of finalists so far in the 64-year history of the international competition.

The Top Three Winners, left to right:  Intel Foundation Young Scientists Awardees Shannon Xinjing Lee and Lennart Kleinwort, and the Gordon E. Moore awardee Nathan Han. (Photo from Society for Science & the Public).

15-year old Nathan Han of Boston was declared the “best of the best,” and he received the Gordon E. Moore Award, a US$75,000 prize named in honor of the Intel co-founder and fellow scientist.  Han used data from publicly available databases to develop a machine learning software tool in studying mutations of a gene linked to breast cancer. 

Two other top winners each received the Intel Foundation Young Scientist Awards of US$50,000: Lennart Kleinwort, 15, of Germany, and Shannon Xinjing Lee, 17, of Singapore.

Kleinwort’s prize-winning project is described as “a new mathematical tool for smartphones ... [the] app allows users to hand draw curves, lines and geometric figures on the touch screen and watch the system render them into shapes and equations that can then be manipulated at will.’

Lee developed a novel electrocatalyst entirely from carbonized Chinese eggplant, which may be used for batteries in the future. She found out that her carbon catalyst “greatly out-performed a more sophisticated commercial catalyst in stability and longevity tests and will be environmentally friendly and inexpensive to produce.”

Photos from Joseph Roni Jacob.
Our Team Philippines 2014 of eight students and the other young scientists from around the world (Kenya, Oman, and Qatar participated for the first time this year) were all at the Intel ISEF vying for awards and scholarships. 

They brought to Los Angeles projects competing in 17 categories covering various fields like Animal Sciences, Behavioral/Social Sciences, Mathematics, Cellular/Molecular Biology, Computer Science, Earth/Planetary Science, Engineering, Environmental Management/Sciences, Energy/Transportation and Plant Sciences.  Each of the 17 “Best of Category” winners received US$5,000, with a US$1,000 grant from Intel Foundation going to their respective schools and to their affiliated fairs.  The top three winners came from these “bests”.

Other finalists in each category received Grand Awards:  First (US$3,000), Second (US$1,500), Third (US$1,000) and Fourth (US$500).  As in the past ISEFs, there were many who received fourth to second Grand Awards.  Aside from these, there were Special Awards from about 70 organizations on the eve of closing day.

Competing in three categories were the hopeful eight bright students from the Philippines:  two individual researchers, Michael Angelo Zafra from Taguig Science High School and Angelo Gabriel  Urag from Fr. Saturnino Urios University (High School Department), Butuan City; and two research teams -- Lea Sibay, Nicole Cejas and Magenta May Orozco from Agusan del Sur National High School, San Francisco, Agusan del Sur; and Michael Angelo De Chavez, Danise Chan and John Steven Ablong from Victorino Mapa High School, Manila. 

Except for Urag who was a sophomore, all the rest were high school seniors during the last school year and are going to college this coming June, or August for those enrolling in the University of the Philippines.  Their projects passed through three levels of competition: division, regional and the national science and technology fairs, spread out in the Department of Education calendar from August 2013 to February 2014.

Michael Angelo Zafra’s research competed in the Energy and Transportation category.  In his study, he isolated thermophilic bacteria (those that can work at high temperatures) from compost, and determined if these can hydrolyze cellulose. He was able to identify a strain of bacillus that has the potential for use in large-scale conversion of biomass into fermentable sugars in bioethanol production.

Angelo Gabriel Urag explored the surface structure and the chemical composition of the wings of male and female Neurothemis terminata, a dragonfly species commonly found in the country, to explain their hydrophobic or anti-wetting characteristics.  Interestingly, he found the male wings more hydrophobic than the female.  He said that the nanostructures of the wings could be reverse engineered for future applications to repel water and dirt on surfaces for easy-cleaning.  His project competed in the Engineering (Materials and Bioengineering) category.

Also in the same engineering category was the study of the Victorino Mapa High School team. They explored the potential use of chitin from crab shells for thin film solar cell applications. They were able to characterize and produce chitin nanowires, nitrogen- and manganese-doped carbon nanomaterials through the Horizontal Vapor Phase Growth Technique at the De La Salle University. 

The team from Agusan del Sur National High School were able to isolate five bacteria strains from palm oil sludge that can break down the Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon (PAH) and Total Petroleum Hydrocarbon (TPH) components of diesel oil.  They found out that these strains, rod-shaped like bacilli, are effective in the bioremediation of oil-contaminated soil that they used for planting mangroves and associated plants.  The research project was in the Environmental Management competition.

In national costumes to the judging interviews, 
and thrilla' at Universal immediately after.
(Photos from Joseph Rino Jacob)
More than 500 finalists brought home awards and prizes for their innovative research.  A number of students received experiential awards from the Intel Foundation including an 11-day trip to China for them to attend the country’s largest national science competition, speak with researchers at Intel’s lab in Shanghai, and visit the Panda Research Base in Chengdu.

Three finalists were awarded an all-expense trip to the Stockholm International Youth Science Seminar (SIYSS), which includes attendance at the Nobel Prize ceremonies.  Others were selected to attend the European Union Contest for Young Scientists in Warsaw, Poland, and the London International Youth Science Forum.  For the second time this year, finalists won the Innovation Exploration Award for a chance to visit the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and Caltech to learn about the latest in space exploration.

What is most interesting to first and second grand award winners is that their names are submitted to the International Astronomical Union (IAU) for once in a lifetime naming after them of minor planets in Ceres Connection.  All these minor planets were discovered by the Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) program, operated by Massachusetts Institute of Technology-Lincoln Laboratory. This naming is connection with the partnership of MIT-Lincoln, SSP and Intel ISEF to promote science education.

Apparently this lifetime naming started way back in 2002 when all the Intel ISEF awardees were invited to submit an essay on 'why would you like a planet named after you.'  The Filipino prize winners, except one, submitted an essay, hence, teammates Jeric Valles Macalintal and Allan Noriel Estrella, and individual researcher Prem Vilas Fortran Moso Rara had planetary bodies named after them. This was also the year that Dr. Josette Biyo, currently Executive Director of the Philippine Science High School System, had a minor planet between Mars and Jupiter named after her when she received the “Intel Excellence Award in Teaching." In 2011, Miguel Arnold Reyes of Philippine Science High School-Main had a minor planet named after him for winning a second grand award for his materials and bioengineering project. 

The Philippines had been participating in the Intel ISEF since 1998.  For the past 15 years, our finalists brought back home special and grand awards to show off. 

Team Philippines 2014 may not have fared equally as well as previous teams, but it was certainly a week of fun and inspirational encounters for all of them at the Intel ISEF in Los Angeles.

National costumes, different nationalities at the world's biggest annual research competition;
(Photos from Team Philippines 2014)

They would recall how they faced the highly qualified judges in their national costumes during their whole day of interviews with them in front of their project displays at the exhibition hall. They forgot the stress of judging day because what followed immediately were thrilling rides at the Universal Studios Hollywood all for free during the Intel ISEF Night there.

There is more than research competition in the ISEF.  There are fun events too like the pin exchange, the customary icebreaker on the eve of opening day with the finalists trading pins and thereby meeting new friends from around the world.  

For sure they also enjoyed their encounter with Nobel laureates comprising the "Excellence in Science and Technology Discussion Panel".  They threw questions to Frances Arnold (Draper Prize, 2011), J. Michael Bishop (Physiology or Medicine, 1989), Martin Chalfie (Chemistry, 2008), H. Robert Horvitz (Chemistry, 2002), Sir Harold Kroto (Chemistry, 1996) and John Mather (Phyics, 2006). They also grabbed photo-ops with anyone of them after the Q&A session.

We have been involved in the national science and technology fair in the Philippines since year 2000, the Intel ISEF-affiliated fair initially with the Department of Science &Technology, and now under the Department of Education. We’ve been part of scientific review committees that pre-qualify projects in the national competition among regular and science high schools, and of panels that judge projects in the physical sciences category, and select the research projects to be sent to the Intel ISEF.  Through these review and judging tasks, we have seen the passion for scientific inquiry among many high school students from the different regions of the country. 

The winning projects in the national fair that are selected for the Intel ISEF are truly owned by the young researchers.  Their work fall within the perspectives defined by Rick Bates, interim CEO and chief advancement officer of Society for Science & the Public, and Wendy Hawkins, executive director of the Intel Foundation.

“In congratulating [the top three winners], we join with Intel in seeing great hope in their research, and that of all of our Intel ISEF finalists,” Bates said. “Not only are they working to discover solutions for society’s challenges, they importantly serve as an inspiration for younger students and encourage them to become involved in the amazing world of hands-on science and engineering.”

Hawkins added, “The world needs more scientists, makers and entrepreneurs to create jobs, drive economic growth and solve pressing global challenges. Intel believes that young people are the key to innovation, and we hope that these winners inspire more students to get involved in science, technology, engineering and math, the foundation for creativity.”

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