A project on a river's chemical pollution takes top prize at prestigious science competition.

Shannon Lisa Babb with her project on water pollution. Credit: Intel

Shannon Lisa Babb, an 18-year-old from Highland, Utah, carried away first prize and a $100,000 college scholarship at the Intel Science Talent Search last week for her research into water pollution in a local river.

The talent search, formerly sponsored by Westinghouse, has taken place annually since 1942. Previous finalists have gone on to win five Nobel Prizes, 10 MacArthur Foundation Fellowships, two Fields Medals and three National Medals of Science, among many other honors.

“Every year, we continue to be impressed and amazed by not only these wonderful young scientists and their projects, but also—and here are some great non-technical terms—what neat young men and women they are,” said Andrew Yeager, director of the Blood and Marrow Transplantation Program at the University of Arizona and chairman of the prize’s search committee.

Babb’s six-month study of Utah’s Spanish Fork River analyzed water quality at seven sites from high ground to low. She discovered that the river’s chemical content exceeded Utah Department of Environmental Quality guidelines for cold-water fisheries, largely due to human activity. In her conclusions, she calls for restructuring the drainage system and teaching inhabitants of the area to dispose properly of their household chemicals instead of dumping them down storm drains.

“I noticed that the Spanish River was fairly polluted, but in the canyon it didn’t seem as polluted,” Babb said ,in a statement released to the press. “I wanted to know what was going on between the canyon and the lake.”

Babb plans to attend Utah State University or the University of Utah next fall, and hopes to work as an international analyst on water quality.

The Intel prize’s judging panel included 100 distinguished scientists who selected 300 semi-finalists in mid-January from over 1,500 entries. A few weeks later, they winnowed that list down to 40 finalists, all of whom traveled to Washington, DC, for final interviews and a presentation of their research. The finalists met with several luminaries, including President Bush, and the winners were announced at a black tie gala on March 14th.

The top three: Shannon Lisa Babb, Yi Sun, and Yuan Zhang Credit: Intel

At the ceremony, Intel Chairman Craig Barrett congratulated all the achievements of the 40 finalists, saying, “The seed of the next big scientific discovery could very well be planted in this room tonight.”

David Bauer, who won the top prize last year for his research into the early detection of neurotoxins, called the experience of being a finalist even more “life-changing” than the experience of winning.

“The 40 finalists who were brought down to DC were really the most amazing people I’ve ever met,” said the current chemistry major at the City College of New York.

This year’s second place winner was Yi Sun, 17, of California, who studies the mathematics theories that apply to algorithms as well as chemical polymers. Yuan Zhang, 17, of Maryland, came in third for her research on arterial plaque build-up. In all, 10 teens were awarded a total of $380,000 dollars.

Originally published March 22, 2006


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