Person of the Week: For This Winner, the Future Is Bright

ByABC News

March 16, 2007— -- Spectrographs -- Raman systems -- most people don't know what those words mean, but to 17-year-old Mary Masterman, they make perfect sense.

Mary, a senior at Westmore High School in Oklahoma City, won first place in the 2007 Intel Science talent search competition, beating out 40 other contestants and winning a $100,000 college scholarship.

She claims she didn't expect to win. "It was almost like when they announced 10th place and it wasn't going to be me I knew I wasn't getting in. So I was so surprised when they called my name."

Mary calls her project "Construction of an inexpensive ramen system and amateur spectrograph." Spectrographs are used in forensics to identify explosives and drugs, and in the future they can be used to identify types of cancer in the human body.

So how does it work? Masterman explains that to understand it, you can begin by thinking of a prism.

"You have a prism and then light comes through like a rainbow. By looking at light of different substances, by looking at the different colors you can try to identify what you are looking at."

She was able to focus a light beam on different objects, like a diamond and a carrot, and identified their unique light fingerprints with her device.

While these devices already exist, there is one key difference between Masterman's spectrograph and those being used today. Spectrographs can cost a hundred thousand dollars to build, but Mary built hers for $300 out of household parts, and hopes that it might help make research cheaper and easier in the future.

Considering that nearly half -- 46 percent -- of American 12th graders score below basic achievement levels in science, Mary's success gives high school science a much-needed boost.

Science is not the only area in which Masterman excels -- when she's not winning science fairs, you may find her playing the piano. Or the harp. Or practicing Spanish, Chinese, Russian, or Polish. Needless to say, she is accomplished, and says that her parents have always supported her.

"When I say that I want to do crazy things they're ok with it and they help me," she says with a laugh.

At the young age of 17 and $100,000 in her pocket for college, it seems Mary's options are endless. She doesn't know yet what college she will be attending, but her future looks bright, and Mary maintains a sense of idealism for her prospects.

"When you really start discovering new things or doing things that are completely new to you you feel like you might be making some sort of difference in the world."

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