The Intel Experience

April 14, 2005, midnight | By Katy Lafen | 15 years, 9 months ago

Blazers contribute to the world of science in the nation's top competition

Senior Abby Fraeman was a little annoyed when she saw the unfamiliar phone number appear on her cell phone — she was rushing from dinner to fencing practice and assumed it was a wrong number. She answered anyway and listened in disbelief to the person on the other line. When she hung up, she turned to her father and screamed out the news. "I'm an Intel finalist!"

The excitement did not stop there. For the 40 nationwide Intel Science Talent Search (STS) finalists, also including seniors Justin Kovac, Michael Forbes and Sherri Geng, the initial thrill of the congratulatory phone call was soon followed by a whirlwind week of award ceremonies, receptions and media attention in Washington, D.C., beginning on March 10. The Intel STS, the most prestigious pre-collegiate science competition in the nation, annually awards large scholarships to the top 10 finalists; the overall winner is granted $100,000.

On March 15, the winners were announced, among them Kovac, who ranked seventh place for his work in detecting the interactions between warm pools of water and hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. Blair had 13 semifinalists and four finalists in the competition, more than any other school in the nation. For these Blazers, the exhaustive amount of research required by the Intel STS and the resulting recognition and prestige of the finalists proved to be an amazing experience.

The long road of research

In the early stages of the extensive process, the project seemed daunting to Fraeman. "In the beginning, I was very overwhelmed, thinking, 'Oh my gosh, how am I going to get this all done; I've never done anything like this!'" she recalls.

Indeed, completing the Senior Research Project, a major part of the Magnet Program in which all students are encouraged to participate, is no easy task. During the second semester of their junior year, students who opt to do a Senior Research Project must find an expert who specializes in the field of science which they wish to pursue and is willing to mentor them in their research. They must become well-versed in their desired field and write a research proposal to guide them as they conduct the research over the summer. Then the students work in a professional laboratory setting for the majority of the summer and upon returning to school the following year, complete an extensive analysis of their findings.

Entering the Intel competition adds another dimension to the process. Applicants must write a 20-page research paper discussing their findings and six pages of extensive answers to challenging math and science-oriented entrance questions. "A huge amount of time and effort is invested in the process," says Magnet senior-research teacher Glenda Torrence. "Students work right through their summer vacations, for heaven's sake!"

The summer of the laboratory

From the first step of the process, Fraeman knew that she would pursue her research in the field of astronomy. She had her first encounter with planetary science in the third grade when her father brought home a telescope from work. "Being able to see the actual rings of Saturn from this dinky little thing in my backyard — I'm still kind of in shock," she says. "From that moment on, I've been hooked on astronomy."

But before the students could even begin their research, they needed to learn the skills necessary for their internships. For Fraeman, this required the mastery of several new computer languages; for Kovac, hours of background reading. "My knowledge of meteorology came from the Weather Channel," Kovac says. "I had some catching up to do."

In order to successfully research his project, Kovac spent the summer at the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological laboratory in Miami, Florida. Working in Florida, Kovac says, was "really nice and very laid back." He grew to anticipate the sound of the daily afternoon thunderstorms crashing outside and the presence of large iguanas resting inside the entrance to the laboratory. "I'd walk past and notice a four foot iguana sitting in a planter out of the corner of my eye," he says, laughing.

Fraeman spent eight weeks of her summer studying a cluster of planets near star IRC +10216 in the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C.

Fraeman enjoyed her time researching her hypothesis at the Carnegie Institution — she found herself working among many famous scientists as she did her research. When the time came to practice her presentation, her mentor led her into a room filled with the entire astronomy department, including Vera Rubin, a world renowned astronomer and Sean Solomon, Principal Investigator for the Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging mission. "It was really intimidating to be one of very few high school students among all these greats," she says. "But it was amazing."

Proximity to the scientific experts aside, Fraeman disliked the repetitive aspect of the lab work. "The sitting-in-front-of-a-computer-screen all summer got kind of boring, kind of quick. I don't know if that's something I really want to do for the rest of my life," she admits. However, the frequent soccer games between science departments, barbeques and field trips with behind-the-scenes access to Washington, D.C., museums helped alleviate some of the monotonous moments.

Unlike Fraeman, by the time Forbes completed his internship, he was certain of his career path. Forbes created a mathematical algorithm to simulate the most efficient way to route a vehicle, when supply does not equal demand. After collaborating closely with his mentor, a professor at the University of Maryland, Forbes realized that he had found his ideal profession. "I was a little unsure of exactly where I wanted to go before. This gave me a look at what it's like to be a professor, which is what I want to do," he says.

The celebrity treatment

During the week-long convention in Washington, D.C., the finalists were "treated like celebrities," Fraeman says. They attended the awards ceremony for the National Medals of Science and Technology, intermingled with science dignitaries from all over the nation and even chatted with President George W. Bush at the White House for about 15 minutes. After the reception, Fraeman remembers, they were left on their own to explore parts of the White House. "We were walking around the Blue Room, Red Room and Green Room, leaving crumbs on the President's carpet, sitting in the presidential furniture," she says.

The finalists were also interviewed extensively by the panel of judges, all accomplished scientists themselves, who took into account not only the students' individual projects but their overall knowledge of science and communication skills as well. "The judges are looking for well-rounded, passionate students who know about all fields of science in and out," says Clint Tanner, Public Relations Director of STS.

Forbes remembers waiting with the other finalists, trying to stay calm before his first interview with the judges. "In the waiting room there was some drinking water, some nice classical music, and all the other kids trying not to stress and to make chit-chat. The first [interview] was most nervous for me because the judges could ask absolutely anything." Once he sat down in his interview, however, Forbes realized "It's okay if you don't know an answer. They were judging you a lot more on your thinking process, not knowledge," he says.

After undergoing the two days of rigorous questioning in virtually every area of science, Fraeman knows that a student must possess strong communication skills to be a competitor in the contest. "Even if you've done the most amazing and ground-breaking work, if you can't write a good paper and communicate what you've done to the public, there's no use," she says.

Programs like the Intel STS that cultivate high school students' scientific talent are crucial to the future of the country, says Tanner. "We're helping to train the next generation of scientists and engineers. Currently there is a major shortage of scientists and engineers in the country, and we want to foster the talent we have," he says.

Fraeman is excited about completing her research this summer and hopes to get it published. No matter what path she chooses to pursue in her career, she will never forget her experiences from participating in the Intel STS. "Everything from the people I met, to the scientists I got to talk to and the way we were treated was just incredible," she says. "I will remember it for very long time."

Katy Lafen. Katy Lafen loves the Beatles, the Rutles and Spinal Tap. More »

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