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Teen Science Whizzes Show "Incredible" Discoveries

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    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 11, 2002
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      By Andy Sullivan
      Environment News Service
      December 11, 2002


      WASHINGTON - Farmers could grow more rice and shaky Internet communications
      could work better some day, thanks to prize-winning discoveries by teen-age
      scientists showcased at a national science fair.

      High-school scientists from across the United States showed off work in
      genetics, molecular biology, mathematics and other fields that judges said
      rose to the professional level.

      "It just blows me away. They're all just incredible," said Joel Spencer, a
      New York University professor who served as a judge at the Siemens
      Westinghouse Competition in Math, Science and Technology.

      Research done by finalists in the nationwide competition could lead to
      faster Internet speeds, more effective antibacterial drugs and better energy
      conservation. One team researched black holes in outer space, while another
      examined more than 700 fossils to better understand why dinosaurs died out.

      Several said they planned to publish their findings in prestigious
      professional journals.


      Juliet Girard and Roshan Prabhu won a $100,000 scholarship for their work
      identifying genes that help some strains of wild rice flower earlier than
      their cultivated counterparts.

      Drawing on a database that described the genetic makeup of rice, the two
      Jersey City, New Jersey, students identified two genetic segments that
      directed wild rice to blossom an average of 10 days earlier than the
      conventional short-grain rice that feeds much of the world.

      Their discovery could allow genetic engineers to develop a new strain that
      would take less time to reach maturity, allowing farmers to produce more and
      extending the growing region into colder climates.

      "People consider us real scientists, and that's great because we worked so
      hard," Girard said.

      Steven Byrnes of Lexington, Massachusetts, took the top individual prize for
      his theory describing outcomes in a two-player game called Chomp.


      Using a pad and pencil, Byrnes was able to detect patterns among the
      millions of possible outcomes in the game, an accomplishment that judge
      Spencer described as "real progress."

      Mathematical study of Chomp and other similar games has proven handy in
      computer communications, potentially allowing cell telephones or other
      devices to fill in the gaps when a less-than-perfect signal is received.

      But Byrnes said any practical application of his work was years away.

      "It's forming the basis of a new field of math, and in math you build the
      theory first," he said of his work. "I'm just really excited about this
      stuff, because it fits together so beautifully."

      Craig Venter, who helped to develop a map of the human genetic code as chief
      scientist at Celera Genomics Group, told the finalists that advances in
      computing power and more teamwork between scientists in different
      disciplines has led to a climate in which innovation is almost constant.

      That sense of discovery and excitement is a marked contrast to the early
      1970s, when graduate-school professors told him that nearly everything had
      been discovered, he said.

      "Now it's almost impossible not to discover something," Venter said.


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