ISEF 2008: The science that won the prize

Sana Raoof, left, 17, of Muttontown, N.Y., Yi-Han Su, 17, center, of Chinese Taipei and Natalie Saranga Omattage, right, 17, of Cleveland, Miss., pose after receiving top honors at the 2008 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Atlanta, Friday, May 16, 2008.

Yesterday, Yi-Han Su was named one of three winners of the Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award at ISEF 2008, for her project on "Efficient Hydrogen Production Using Cu-Zn-Al Catalysts Prepared by Homogeneous Precipitation Method." Below the fold I'll show you what a winning display looks like and I'll share her abstract.

A winning display

Here's the abstract: "In industry, high-activity catalyst is desirable for methanol reforming reaction in order to generate hydrogen efficiently. In the project, multi-composition Cu-Zn-Al catalyst was synthesized by homogeneous precipitation (HP) method with urea treatment. In comparison with those obtained from conventional co-precipitation method, our technique offers an opportunity to improve the homogeneity of metal mixing and to increase the surface area of catalysts. By adjusting urea concentration, water amount, reaction temperature and time, various hydrotalcite-like compounds are obtained. The optimized catalysts having flower-like morphology exhibited high surface area (78.5 m2/g, as determined by Brunaer-Emmett-Teller method), and a lower reduction temperature. The HP-method derived Cu-Zn-Al catalyst exhibited higher methanol conversion, hydrogen production rate, and CO2-selectivity under methanol reforming reaction at 523K compared with those derived by co-precipitation method. To further improve the catalytic performance of the Cu-Zn-Al, Ce and Zr were employed to modify the support. The Ce/Zr-modified catalysts did show higher activity as evidence by a 20K lower reduction temperature and more than 85% of methanol coversion. Our method can be generalized for the synthesis of other multi-composition materials with high homogeneity."

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Such a great ability at such a young age.

I somehow doubt she would have accomplished this without her parents. I am speculating that they are the pressuring to achieve type. I mean how many 17 year olds actually know what an abstract is? What the word abstract even means.

Good luck to her.

I sometimes wonder where the financing came from for students who win contests like these. How many of the entrants in ISEF are already economically privileged (or at least not underprivileged)?

In the abstract, it's all about "our" technique, and "our" method - of course, that's completely normal in academic research, but here, you seemingly have this one young woman taking all the credit.

Who provided the apparatus? Who did the imaging? How much professional assistance was provided? Where did the resources come from to support the experiments?

Even amongst researchers in industry, or at a university, good experimental research is always supported by colleagues and/or advisors, and certainly the lab's technicians.

When was the last time you saw a serious experimental scientific paper with one single author?

I'm delighted to see brilliant young women sweeping ISEF, I really am - but how much of the result are they really responsible for all by themselves, and how much credit is due to other people behind the scenes?

Congratulations to all of these extraordinary people. Thank you, Sheril, for linking this from The Intersection.

Steven: That's speculation. At my school, I knew plenty of overachievers with laid-back parents (my sister was one of them). With the correct support from an enthusiastic teacher, I know a good half dozen people who could have worked at least into the ballpark of this standard, and I went to a middle-of-the-road state funded school.

Rose: I may be reading this wrong, but only two of them are American.

Steven:You would be surprised how many know what an abstract is. You should actually visit the ISEF if you ever get the chance. These kids will blow you away! Most of the students do it because they love what they are doing. You have to love science to put in the time they do on some of these projects. My son has been doing a project every year for 8 years. He works oneach project for 9 to 10 months week-ends and all summer. He works with his Uncle who is an engineer. He always does a project that will help people. His field is engineering. He will graduate next month at the age of 16. He will be attending the University of Washington to study aerospace engineering. He just got a patent on last years science project. It was a new hood design that is safer for pededstrians hit by the car. It is going to be the law for car makers here in the U.S. in the next few years and is all ready the law in Europe. Yes it took long hours of research on the internet to find out this information and to do the simulation testing on his design. No we are not pushy parents. This is his passion. This year about 20% of the students at ISEF had patents all ready or pending.

By Jacqueline (not verified) on 19 May 2008 #permalink

I did science fairs when I was younger - not ISEF, ones in my home country, but they fed into the same prize events. Some points:

1)I think it helps if you go to a really good school which offers this kind of opportunity as part of the school. It probably helps if your parents can support you or your parents have contacts that can help you. Money can also help you with travelling to fairs/preparing displays. But, that said, in my experience those projects were the minority of projects.

2)A lot of really good projects came from schemes that allowed students in the last years of high school into university labs for the summer. I know they have similar things in the USA - often targeting disadvantaged groups. That's how regular people get access to mentors, resources, proper equipment and the chance to do a wonderful project (not to mention decide to stay studying science despite high school courses being dull). That's how I did my project, and I was lucky with my amazing mentor, and an amazing regional coordinator who gave me lots of advice on how to write a display. So when you see young people having had experience in university labs - often that's not connections - it's the chance that young people from a wide range of backgrounds who are interested in science have to spend the summer doing science geek stuff. (The scheme I did wasn't a pay for program and even provided a stipend.)

3)The standard format of the fair, in my experience, means one name goes on the title bit. Of course, people have an acknowledgements section of their display.

4)About kids finding out what an abstract is. First, they're not really kids - they're almost ready to be college students and they're motivated enough to do a science project for fun. They can probably figure out where to look on the internet/who to ask for advice to find out how they need to display their work for a contest. :)

Congratulations to all - hope they all had as much fun with their projects as I used to.