Valerie Ding's interest in quantum physics was sparked several years ago, when she shadowed a professor at Portland State University. He specialized in quantum computing, and showed her his lesson plan and textbooks, which gave her an early fundamental interest in the field. She started checking out books at the library on the weekends and researching the subject, and decided to pursue it in her research.
Oh, forgot to mention — she was in seventh grade at the time.
Now 18 years old, Ding just competed as a finalist in Intel's Science Talent Search for her research to optimize quantum dot solar cells to perform at double the efficiency of conventional solar cells.
She was one of 40 finalists who traveled to Washington, D.C. from March 5 to 11 to compete for more than $1 million in awards provided by the Intel Foundation.
"I [wanted to use] a quantum physical way to design solar panels, and I identified a need in field that it's too expensive right now," she said. "And I thought that economically, look at the supply and demand, what is happening in market. The reason it's not necessarily catching on, or why US companies are not too eager to manufacture, is because there are manufacturers in China and overseas that do it for so much less."
Ding became involved with Intel when she entered science and engineering competitions in middle and early high school. Then, after her sophomore year, she interned at the company to further her software development skills, which she figured would supplement her research.
Intel started sponsoring the Talent Search in 1999, and has since evolved the program in many ways. Starting this year, the Intel Science Talent Search had a new awards structure. The top award money tripled, with awards of $150,000 each in three areas of research: Basic Research, Global Good, and Innovation. There were also three second place awards of $75,000, and three third place awards of $35,000.
On Tuesday, March 10, Intel announced the winners of the competition. Noah Golowich, from Boston, won the basic research category for his research in mathematics; Andrew Jin, from San Jose, California, won the global good category for developing a machine learning algorithm to identify adaptive mutations across the human genome; and Michael Hofmann Winer, of Bethesda, Maryland, won the innovation category for his work looking at how particles of sound, called phonons, interact with electrons.
"The original and traditional science research had been that stovepipe — if you're a physicist, you do physics research, if you're a chemist, you did chemistry, but we've seen in recent years — which is reflective of what we see in the best science and engineering — the best work is the intersection of multiple disciplines, like engineering and computer science, and multiple fields of science," said Wendy Hawkins, executive director of the Intel Foundation.
Hawkins has been with the Talent Search since near the beginning, and she has been with Intel for almost 25 years in various roles.
"[We were] also seeing students' passion grew out of not 'how do I push the boundaries of single discipline,' but the real world problems of science, trying to solve an illness in [their] family, a problem in the developing world, and they really wanted to save lives, [or solve] a problem in the environment," Hawkins said.
The Intel Science Talent Search 2015 finalists were from 36 schools in 18 states. They were selected from 300 semifinalists and more than 1,800 entrants. 52% were male, and 48% were female.
Some of the other categories included animal sciences, behavioral and social sciences, biochemistry, bioengineering, bioinformatics and genomics, chemistry, computer science, materials science, mathematics, medicine and health, physics, and space science.
The finalists' research projects were pretty amazing, researching things such as a low-cost, portable device to detect blood diseases and parasites; an advanced encryption system for cybersecurity; and a machine learning-based method to identify promising drugs to combat cancer, tuberculosis and Ebola.
And several of the participants have been pushing the boundaries in renewable energy research. Another one of the finalists was Jennifer McCleary, who has identified optimal metal oxide materials useful for cleaner methods of producing hydrogen as a fuel source.
She started her research in the eighth grade, when she participated in a program at CalTech to use solar energy to split water and produce hydrogen. She has since been working with Intel on the research through this Talent Search and has brought the Solar Energy Activity Lab from the summer program to her school.
McCleary leads a team of 20 students in researching metal oxides that can work as photoanodes for these reactions. She guides them with how to start in science research and how to better identify those materials specifically.
"The most rewarding part [was] when I was working over the summer, meeting other scientists and seeing what it's like to work as a scientist at research institutions. [I met] wonderful mentors and it got me interested," McCleary said.
Hawkins said this advanced renewable energy research is exciting for several reasons. First is a self-interest, of course — anything reducing energy costs is good for manufacturing companies like Intel — but more importantly, competitions like the Talent Search and the Intel Science and Engineering Fair are giving these students an outlet to experience science in a way the vast majority of students are never able to. It's not that arms-length science study, most of them get, she said.
Of course, the majority of the finalists, including Ding and McCleary, were lucky enough to have in-depth science programs throughout their educational careers that have pushed and helped them to excel in the field. Both girls expressed gratitude for that.
"It's these science competitions that have really kept science alive for students through a pretty dismal time for science in education," Hawkins added. "The focus of schools has not been on science frankly for quite a long time...The capabilities [of students] are unbounded and not cramped by the boxes they're put into by what our education system is limited to these days."
The competition in D.C. is an inspiring experience every year, Hawkins said. The team spends the week with these brilliant young scientists, and Hawkins said they're completely focused on each other. Mostly, they're just eager to spend a concentrated period of time with others who share their passions, and they form friendships that last throughout their careers.
As for Ding and McCleary, they're just excited to move into the next phase of their research and continue with renewable energy technology in some capacity, most likely engineering, in college, which they will both be attending in the fall (though neither of them has decided where yet). Ding said she's looking forward to the freedom college provides to delve into her field.
"I feel that compulsion to examine the way we are powering world around us," Ding said. "Every day we use the internet and we don't necessarily think while we're using our computers that [it's] an unsustainable resource. How do we make sure they're available for generations in the future? That's scary to me right now, but it's a good position as a society to move into solar or wind or hydro or nuclear if need be. There are good options out there."
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Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.