When the judges for the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search winnowed their list of 300 semifinalists from across the United States to just 40 finalists, three of the finalists all came from the same school in the same community: Port Washington's Schreiber High School. Kristin Kovner's math research project, Viviana Risca's science research, and Lucas Hanft's social science project were recognized as among the most outstanding in the nation. The threesome will be traveling to Washington, DC for a March 13 gala at the Science Talent Institute where the top 10 winners and the top awardee will be announced. After having spent countless hours over several years on their individual projects, these three stellar scholars were thrilled to be recognized, considered continuing in their respective areas when in college, and were very appreciative of the support they received in conducting their work.
Viviana Risca is a wonder: she came here from Romania almost eight years ago knowing very little English. Thanks to an ESL class and "watching a lot of television," (and, obviously, a superb mind) she progressed rapidly. Viviana submitted a research project in which she encoded and later, decoded, a text message into a strand of DNA. The idea for her project began when she contemplated DNA's information carrying ability. "Why shouldn't we take advantage of DNA as an information-carrying medium?" she asked, and her project took shape. Working at Mount Sinai's School of Medicine, she combined the text-encoded DNA strand, which had two special markers, with other similar strands. The only way to decode the data was to know the secret marker sequence, making this "a secure method of sending secret information," Viviana explained. Along the way, she had to overcome some snags. At one point, there was a contamination problem which took a month to eliminate. Throughout, she had great help and support. Viviana was very grateful to her Mr. Sinai mentor, Dr. Carter Bancroft, Schreiber Science Research Program director Mrs. Phyllis Serfaty, for her great help with her paper, and to Mrs. Judy Ferris, her ninth grade biology teacher.
And how does she feel to be a finalist? "I'm very excited, not only because our school did so well, but to meet the other finalists in DC," she said. And she considers herself extremely lucky, too. As she contemplates a research career that combines computer science and biology, she advises others "to take advantage of opportunities when they come up, work hard, and persevere." Her mother, Mihaela, works in the computer industry, and her father, Mihai Risca, does mechanical design for the semi-conductor industry and holds several patents. Both are delighted for their daughter. "My husband and I are very proud of her, and so happy that all her efforts are being rewarded," Mrs. Risca said.
Lucas Hanft, another Intel finalist, was equally elated to get word that his project was selected. "I was ecstatic!" Lucas explained. "I didn't predict this, and I didn't think I would be a semifinalist either, though some of my teachers thought I had a fighting chance. So, it has been a series of shocks," he added. Lucas's social science research project evolved from his study of the Holocaust. In the course of this work, he discovered Stanley Milgram's Obedience to Authority, and found it so riveting he devoured other works by the same social scientist. Reading about Milgram's lost letter technique gave Lucas some ideas for his own project. Milgram believed that when asked directly, people often aren't truthful, but if they found a lost and stamped letter, they were expressing their viewpoint when they either mailed the lost letter, or ignored it. Lucas applied this concept in a fresh way. Through lost letter field work, Lucas sought to observe the degree of altruism and opinions of suburban and urban dwellers on several controversial issues. "It's akin to polling people without their knowledge," Lucas explained.
Thus, Lucas "lost" or rather, carefully dropped a total of 800 letters on Long Island, and 800 letters in New York City's museums, libraries, on cars, or in public transports, to determine differences between suburban and urban opinions. Some letters were addressed to a fictitious pro-Hillary Clinton for Senate office, and some against; others were addressed to a ficticous pro-Mayor Giuliani Senate campaign address, and others, against. He also had envelopes addressed to fictitious organizations supporting legalization of gay marriages, and those addressed to a fictional anti-legalization group. And his findings? "Both New York City and suburbanite were in favor of legalizing gay marriages, but urbanites were more liberal," he said. Lucas also observed numerous acts of kindness. After deliberately leaving an envelope on the seat of a New York City taxi, for example, Lucas found he was pursued up the steps of the Metropolitan Museum by the envelope-holding cab driver, who left his cab and passengers waiting in order to return the envelope. Another "lost" letter was hand-delivered to the return address.
The secret of his success? Lucas said his project was easy to understand, and that the methodology was unusual. "It's not very sophisticated, but it is creative," he said. Lucas also acknowledged the tremendous help he received from his research assistant, his mother Flora and Dr. Ann Saltzman at Drew University, who mentored Lucas. His mother's reaction was "this is astounding ... I think Schreiber's social science research program is fantastic. Every year, this program -- a newer one than the others -- is more and more successful." She credits Dr. Rothman, Mr. Cahill and Mr. O'Connor with the program's achievements. Mrs. Hanft added that "It is wonderful to see academic endeavors get the attention the way sports does; both deserve it."
Kristin Kovner completes this outstanding trio. Her winning research project took her, theoretically speaking, many miles from her hometown; Kristin studied the theoretical implications of recent astronomical observations. She based her study on work she had done on the "Big Bang Theory" while at Michigan State's high school science honors program. Always entranced by the stars as a child, Kristin said she studied three different aspects of the Big Bang theory of the origins of the universe. Her mentor at Michigan State, Dr. Repko, had her read The First Three Minutes, and if he was uncertain of the answers to some of her questions about the text, he encouraged her to discover the answers on her own. As a result, Kristin spent 50-hour weeks engaged in her calculus-based theoretical studies, searching for answers. Along the way, she taught herself calculus and computer programming.
Kristin said that even a week after being told she was a finalist, she is still shocked. "It is such an honor. I am so happy, especially seeing how happy the school and the town are. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd even be a semifinalist," she said. And she is overwhelmed with the warm outpouring from every aspect of this community. "I have gotten so many calls congratulating me and thanking me, on behalf of the town," Kristin said. "People have been sending me lovely notes; I heard from my kindergarten teacher and my former track coach."
Kristin's passions are vast, like the subject she studied for her Intel project. She loves music, is a vocalist, and even wrote a musical based on Macbeth, which was presented at Schreiber last year and covered on television's Cablevision station. Dancing, science, acting, and math are all strong interests of hers. Letting her interests guide her, clearly helped lead to her success with her Intel project. So "do what you love and smile -- have fun" are her words of advice for other students. This gregarious and enthusiastic student is particularly indebted to Schreiber's Science Research Program director Elaine Labrocca, Dr. Barish, her parents, and her teachers. Mrs. Kovner, who was thrilled about her daughter's most recent accomplishment in a long list of many, also acknowledged Mrs. Labrocca's part, saying, "Mrs. Labrocca did wonders." Kristin is planning to attend Yale University next year, and hopes to take Spanish, English, physics, and music courses. Though undecided about her future career, she is considering medicine, because of a desire to help others.
So, while others await the final decision about the top Intel award on March 13, these students, we are certain, are already every inch winners.