Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2008

Two county students finalists in Intel search

Winner of the $100,000 college science scholarship will be announced in March

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Two Montgomery County students driven by passion and intellect are finalists in the prestigious 67th Intel Science Talent Search.

Richard Montgomery High School senior Benjamin ‘‘Ben” Lu, 17, of Potomac and Montgomery Blair High School senior Louis Wasserman, 17, of Derwood are among 40 students nationwide competing for the $100,00 first-place scholarship and the only students from Maryland named finalists last week in the high school competition.

The Intel competition is administered by Society for Science & the Public, a nonprofit organization dedicated to research and education. The society pairs high school students with professional mentors to conduct research and submit papers on the student’s choice of math, science or engineering projects.

In March, Lu and Wasserman will attend a weeklong institute in Washington, D.C., where top award winners will be announced.

For both teenagers, completing their research and entering the competition was about more than the prizes and prestige.

For Lu, it was about looking for a way to help his father, who was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2003.

‘‘I was really worried at the time, so I wanted to learn as much as I could about cancer,” he said.

So he began poring through medical journals and applied for an internship at the National Institutes of Health, where he spent two summers researching cell signaling pathways.

The project resulted in the discovery of a novel signaling mechanism by which cell surface receptors regulate gene expression.

‘‘We might be able to develop new cancer treatments to target specific proteins on the pathway,” Lu said.

Bai Lu, his father, said he is very proud of his son.

‘‘I went through lymphoma and during that time, he and I developed a stronger bond,” Bai Lu said, adding that he is ‘‘essentially cured” after undergoing treatment.

‘‘He was motivated to learn more about cancer and it was amazing to see his passion and drive,” he said of his son.

Bai Lu learned a day before his son that the teenager was a finalist and visited Richard Montgomery on Jan. 30 when a representative from Intel surprised Ben at school with the news.

Lu, a student in Richard Montgomery’s International Baccalaureate program, is the school’s first Intel finalist.

‘‘I’m very happy for him,” Bai Lu, a scientist at NIH, said. ‘‘Whether he wins or not, it will be a good experience for him.”

Lu said he was not expecting to be named a finalist and is thrilled. He added he is looking forward to the week in Washington and the chance to see old friends, including Wasserman, and make new ones.

Lu and Wasserman first met in November when the two were finalists in the nationwide Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology, for which they submitted the same projects.

Wasserman said he was ecstatic when he got the news that he was an Intel finalist.

‘‘That was exciting, but I got more excited when I heard Ben was getting it, too,” he said.

Wasserman began his research last summer at the University of Maryland, College Park, with the help of a mentor.

‘‘It was very much trial and error,” he said.

Wasserman project looks into whether there are effective ways of breaking computer security systems.

The Montgomery Blair magnet student plans to study mathematics and computer science in college next fall.

‘‘I want to teach math and do research,” Wasserman said. ‘‘I love teaching.”

Balancing his laptop on his thighs while he talked, Wasserman said he has always loved computers.

‘‘My mom tells me I was typing little stories on the computer at the age of 4,” he said. ‘‘I was a little nerd.”

Wasserman needed to use a computer at a young age because his mind worked faster than his hands, Lori Wasserman, his mother, chimed in.

‘‘He couldn’t write with a pencil fast enough, so we plopped him in front of the computer and opened up a word processor document and let him bang away,” she said.

She is thrilled that her son is a finalist in the prestigious competition.

‘‘I was stunned,” Lori Wasserman said. ‘‘It’s just that the kids who get to the finals are extraordinary. They are so creative and so passionate about what they’re doing — it’s amazing to see their faces light up.”

Eight Montgomery County Public Schools students were semifinalists in the contest.

Lu and Wasserman were selected as finalists because of their projects and intellect, said Rick Bates, director of development and corporate relations for Society for Science & the Public, ‘‘and their promise as future scientists.”