29 Bay Area students named Intel Prize semifinalists

January 11, 2012 8:46:29 PM PST
Students at 14 Bay Area high schools got a big surprise Wednesday: they were notified they are semifinalists in the very competitive Intel Science Talent Search.

Altogether, 29 Bay Area students were named Intel Science semifinalists Wednesday. An amazing 11 at the Harker Academy in San Jose and a record-setting four at San Jose's Bellarmine College Preparatory.

By the time freshmen at Bellarmine College Prep graduate, they will take from six to eight semesters of science classes. The goal, of course, is get into a top college or university. But for many, being named one of 300 semifinalists in the annual Intel Science Talent Search is an equal goal.

"A lot of people today, they make science sound like it's really, really hard to do, something that only people who are geniuses can do, and that's not really an impression that people should be getting. I mean, I'm not a genius. I'm just someone who managed to work hard," Intel Science Talent semifinalist Nikhil Desai said.

Desai is one of four Bellarmine seniors receiving $1,000 checks from Intel. They did research projects in physics, genenomics, computer science and bioengineering.

"You have to do something outside the classroom to really find out that you like it; like for me, it was doing this research and a lot of practical application," computer science semifinalist Saurabh Sharan said.

James Thomas has already been accepted at MIT. He spent last summer there where he began analyzing genetic markers among alcoholics.

"So you use a technique called machine learning to analyze that data and produce a model such that if you receive the genetic and demographic information of a new individual, you can predict the probability that they'll develop alcohol dependence," Thomas said.

It helps that many students in the Silicon Valley come from homes where parents are engineers or scientists.

However, Science Department Chairman Rod Wong, who has been teaching for 30 years, says the Intel competition and others put students on a quest to solve questions.

"There'll be a big question mark; it'll lead to another project, and it'll lead to a bigger question and sometimes that question is what's going to follow them through college," Wong said.

Forty out of the 300 semifinalists will be named finalists in two weeks. The finalists get an all-expense paid trip to Washington, D.C. They will compete there for awards worth over $1.25 million.