Top Teen Scientists Advance to National Scholarship Contest

After earning accolades in mathematics and astronomy at the Georgia Institute of Technology, three high-school students named Southern regional winners of the prestigious Siemens Westinghouse Competition in Math, Science and Technology advance to a national contest this weekend in Washington, D.C.

Steven Byrnes of West Roxbury, Mass.*, Elysa Wan of Chapel Hill, N.C., and Nigel Mesta of Statesville, N.C., won scholarships Nov. 23 for projects submitted to the Siemens Westinghouse Competition, the nation's leading research-based science and mathematics competition for high-school students.

Georgia Tech was the official host of the competition's Southern regional finals, one of six such events held throughout the country this past month. Five individuals and three teams presented their original scientific research, technological inventions and mathematical theories to a distinguished panel of judges made up of prominent scientists and faculty from the Institute.

Byrnes, 18 and a senior at Roxbury Latin School, finished the finals as the top Individual Winner; Wan and Mesta, both 17 and students at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Raleigh, took Team Winner honors. This weekend they advance to the national competition in Washington, which will be held at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. They will compete with the nation's other regional finalists for scholarships ranging from $10,000 to a top prize of $100,000.

"I was really excited when I won, but I was also surprised because the projects that I was competing against were really strong," Byrnes told a writer for The Boston Globe. "This experience has taught me that I really enjoy doing research and theoretical math, and I hope to have a career where I can do theoretical research all the time and maybe teach, too."

Less than 3 percent of students who enter the competition earn invitations to Washington to compete as national finalists.

"These students are some of the most brilliant young people in America," said Albert Hoser, chairman and CEO of The Siemens Foundation, which awards more than $1 million annually in scholarships and grants through the Siemens Westinghouse Competition and other programs. "It is inspiring to see these extraordinary high-school students working at the highest levels in science, mathematics and technology at such an early age."

Paul Ohme, director of Georgia Tech's Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics and Computing, said it is an honor for Georgia Tech to host the regional finals of the Siemens Westinghouse Competition.

"It is vital that we encourage new generations to pursue science and math in school, and this competition is a wonderful way to do that," Ohme said.

During the Southern regional finals, Byrnes earned a $3,000 scholarship for his project, "Poset-Game Periodicity." Wan and Mesta shared a $3,000 award for their team project, "Investigation of an Intermediate-Mass Black Hole Candidate in Starburst Galaxy M82." Nine runners-up earned a bronze medal and a $1,000 scholarship each.

Byrnes' project analyzes a class of two-player games known as poset games. A poset, or partially ordered set, is a mathematical object satisfying a few simple properties, and any poset can be turned into a two-player game. Byrnes developed a new theorem, the Poset Game Periodicity Theorem, which concerns general poset games: That is, as a poset expands in two directions, periodic patterns emerge in the associated poset game not only in losing positions, but also in positions with any fixed g-value, or a general classification of game positions.

Using his theorem, Byrnes was further able to prove the following: He resolved two open conjectures about a specific poset game called Chomp; he proved several results about the computational complexity of calculating g-values in poset games; and he gave an efficient, or polynomial-time, winning strategy for a large class of poset games.

Games such as these are important to a growing field known as discreet mathematics and for their potential applications in a wide range of computer-network issues, such as the use of secure codes and reliable communications across "noisy channels."

"What impressed us most about Steven's project is that he has solved some problems that up until now professional mathematicians have not been able to solve," said Professor Thomas Morley, the lead mathematics judge at Georgia Tech. "This work is clearly top level. Steven could easily have earned a Ph.D. for this project, which is astonishing for a high-school student."

Morley went on to say that Byrnes' work also is worthy of publication in a peer-reviewed mathematics journal, which is a singular distinction shared by the world's top scientists and recognized experts in their fields.

Wan and Mesta earned their scholarship by presenting an astronomy project that supports the theory of the existence of space objects called intermediate-mass black holes. This relatively new class of objects is poorly understood. Their mass is between those of stellar black holes, which are produced by the death of a large star, and super-massive black holes, which can be found in the center of galaxies.

By combining infrared data with X-ray data, and by investigating the region of an intermediate-mass black hole candidate in a galaxy named M82, Wan and Mesta inferred the presence of an aged superstar cluster coincident to the black hole. Their proposed theory is that this aged superstar cluster fuels the intermediate-mass black hole.

"Although this team's work cannot prove conclusively that intermediate-mass black holes exist, it certainly bolsters current theories," said Academic Professional James Sowell, the astronomy judge at Georgia Tech. "Their findings are another step in understanding the evolution of galaxies."

Administered by the College Board and its partner, Educational Testing Service, the Siemens Westinghouse Competition has quickly earned wide respect from the academic community for its rigorous judging standards. Of the more than 1,100 students who entered the competition this year, fewer than 8 percent submitted projects deemed worthy of being selected as regional finalists.

Entries are judged at the regional and national levels by prominent scientists and faculty from six leading research universities, which also host the regional competitions: the Georgia Institute of Technology (South), Carnegie Mellon (Mid-States), the University of Notre Dame (Midwest), the University of California, Berkeley (West), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (New England), and the University of Texas at Austin (Southwest).

The New-Jersey based Siemens Foundation is dedicated to providing scholarships and increased access to higher education for students in science, mathematics and technology-related disciplines. Established in 1998 to promote and support educational activities, the Siemens Foundation recognizes and supports America's most promising science and mathematics students and teachers, plus schools that do the most to promote education in the core sciences.

Its mission is based on the culture of innovation, research and educational support that is the hallmark of Siemens' U.S. operating companies and its parent company, Siemens AG.

For more information on winners of this year's competitions, or for questions about this weekend's events, contact Marie Gentile with the Siemens Foundation, (732) 603-5886 or (212) 258-4246. You also can reach Gentile by e-mail, marie.gentile@sc.siemens.com .

Also contact Director Paul Ohme, Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics and Computing, (404) 894-6179 or paul.ohme@ceismc.gatech.edu .

*Editor's Notes: Byrnes was moved from the Northeast regional competition held at the Massachusettes Institute of Technology because his father is a senior lecturer there. He went on to win top prize in the individual category and a $100,000 scholarship for his mathematics project in the national 2002 Siemens Westinghouse Competition. Wan and Mesta earned a $20,000 scholarship for their team entry in Washington, D.C.