Although they haven't even graduated from high school, young researchers like Mariangela Lisanti are already making noteworthy contributions to science.
Lisanti, 17, carried off the top honors Tuesday at this year's Intel Science Talent Search. The senior from Staples High in Westport, Conn., was awarded a $100,000 college scholarship. She also got to meet President Bush at the White House last Thursday.
She is the third woman in a row to win top prize in the annual contest sometimes dubbed the "junior Nobels."
Other winners include Nathaniel Craig, 18, who won second place and a $75,000 scholarship for his project on the thermodynamics of super-cooled liquids, and Gabriel Carroll, 18, awarded the third-place $50,000 scholarship for his work on the mathematics of partially ordered sets.
Tiny Technology, Big Future
In simple terms, Lisanti's project measures the rate at which pulses of electricity pass through an extremely tiny gold-based wire.
To better understand electron transport in such nanostructures (objects that have a physical dimension smaller than 0.1 micron, or 100 billionths of a meter), Lisanti developed a new measurement apparatus that enables data acquisition at an unprecedented rate. Using "nanowires" only a few atoms wide, electrical current is transmitted in bursts, rather than as a continuously.
Lisanti says her invention measures this flow through nanowires better than any technique that existed before.
"With the device that I built, you can collect data, three to one-thousand times faster than other techniques," Lisanti told ABCNEWS' Good Morning America. " It's about $35 worth of equipment in comparison to $100,000."
Lisanti's hopes her new device can be used to aid the super-miniaturization of electronics.
She says the field of "nanotechnology" — in which atoms are used in place of traditional electronic components — may eventually lead to the development of super-computers the size of a dime.
Lisanti worked on her project for the entire summer at Yale University, where her mentor was the chairman of the electrical engineering department. She says it has been her dream since fifth grade to compete in the prestigious pre-college competition sponsored by the Intel Corporation.
She was awarded first-place at a banquet with her peers Monday night. Now in its 60th year, the contest is sometimes considered the "Junior Nobel Prize."
"We applaud these young scientists — our country's future leaders, thinkers and innovators," said Intel president and CEO Craig R. Barrett. He said that the awards are "an ideal way for us to acknowledge students who achieve academic excellence, teachers and students that go the extra mile to excite and motivate their students, and parents who stay involved in their children's education."
First in her class of 264 students at her Connecticut High School, Lisanti is the captain of the math team, founder and captain of the school's engineering team, and concertmaster of the chamber and symphonic orchestras. Fluent in both Italian and Spanish, she has received numerous awards in language, as well as science competitions, and has been named a Governor's Scholar — the highest academic distinction in Connecticut.
Intel gave awards to the competition's 40 finalists. They each received at least a $5,000 scholarship and a mobile computer. In all, the science competition awarded $1.2 million in scholarships this year.