$500K for America's Next Top Minds

Prestigious science competition rewards high school whiz kids.

Dec. 9, 2008— -- In second grade, when other boys might have begged their parents for more time with the television or the latest video game, Wen Chyan of Denton, Tex., once asked his parents for four boxes of baking soda.

Why? "I think I wanted to try to make an acid-based bomb," Chyan cheekily told ABCNews.com.

The son of scientists, Chyan recalled that some of the first demonstrations his father conducted for him involved acid-based reactions.

But from a curious youngster impressed by flashy test-tube "explosions," Chyan has become a decorated scientist in his own right.

On Monday, Chyan, 17, a senior at the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science in Denton, Tex., won the top $100,000 prize in the prestigious Siemens Science Competition in Math, Science and Technology. Established in 1998 by the Siemens Foundation, an education nonprofit supported by the multinational technology and electronics company, the Siemens Competition recognizes groundbreaking research conducted by high school students.

This year, the foundation awarded a total of $500,000 to 18 finalists from around the country for research that ranged from preventing infections to uncovering new chemotherapeutics to optimizing the performance of multi-core processors.

"The answers to the tough questions in science -- in the medical field, in the transportation field, in the energy field -- [are] going to be solved by science that's going on right now," said James Whaley, president of the Siemens Foundation.

"We want to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers and mathematicians so they go on and solve those problems. And the way to do that is to do something like this. Celebrate their achievement, tell the world about it, so that other kids get involved," he said.

Chyan's winning research, conducted with his mentor Richard Timmons, a chemistry professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, involved the development of an anti-microbial coating that would kill bacteria in devices, such as catheters and breathing tubes.

Chyan pursued this research, in part, because his grandmother and others he knew had suffered from these kinds of infections, he said.

Citing Centers for Disease Control figures, Chyan said, each year, more than 2 million people in the U.S. acquire infections through such devices and more than 100,000 die. Treating these infections costs up to $30 billion annually.

One of the competition's judges, W. Mark Saltzman, a Yale University professor of chemical and biomedical engineering, said the research was creative and confirmed that it had the potential to improve a wide range of medical devices.

"I hope it will be used in the very near future," Chyan said, adding that he and Timmons intend to file a patent soon. "I tried to develop this technology so that it would be universal [and] versatile so you could use it in all types of situations."

But, of course, college is next on his horizon. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard are at the top of his list but he's looking at several options, he said.

In addition to recognizing Chyan, the Siemens Foundation also awarded $100,000 to Sajith Wickramasekara and Andrew Guo, the winners of the team category.

The high school seniors at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham took the award for their genetics research that has the potential to easily identify new chemotherapeutic drugs and improve current ones.

"Coming to nationals is like a dream come true for us," said Wickramasekara, 17.

The classmates worked on the project all summer with Craig Bennett, a Duke University researcher in the surgery department. Both students have always been interested in science and wanted to pursue research that could have a significant medical application. Guo's mother is a geneticist, which helped inspire an interest in biology, he said.

"Biology is so relevant to humans. It's medical and you can help people. [So] I can feel the impact of what I'm doing," Wickramasekara said.

Their high school advisor and teacher, Myra Halpin, said engaging researchers and learning how to articulate the science behind their work were crucial parts of their school's science curriculum and the students' success.

"You can have the best ideas and you can do the best science, but if you can't present it in a way that other people can understand, you're going to be handicapped," she said.

Although the Siemens Competition is not as old as the Intel Science Talent Search (which has replaced the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, founded in 1942), it is also a highly sought-after prize for budding scientists. Competition organizers say it is unique because it allows students to compete in teams.

Last year, the competition hit a milestone when three girls swept the top prizes. This year, four of the 18 finalists were female, although 48 percent of the competition's 1,462 entrants were girls.

After judges -- including Nobel laureates -- whittle the more than 1,400 applicants down to 18, the finalists are invited to New York for a long weekend that includes bowling and a Broadway show, in addition to the rounds of judging and awards ceremony.

"I never get the sense that this is a competition," Whaley said. "I get the sense that it's a conference [with] the sharing [of] ideas; some kids make lifelong friends."