With $1.25 million in prize money up for grabs, the Intel Science Talent Search is as big as high school science gets.
Six Philadelphia-area seniors are in contention for the nation's oldest and most prestigious scholastic science award. They were among 300 semifinalists named last week.
"When I saw my name on the list, I was scrolling down on my iPhone, I actually couldn't believe it at first," said Charlie Zhang, 18, a senior at Wissahickon High School. "It's just such an honor for me."
Zhang conducted research on sugar-addicted worms during summer internships at the Temple University School of Medicine.
Across town at Penn's Computational Memory Lab, semifinalist Michelle Danoff conducted her research.
The 18-year-old senior at The Shipley School in Bryn Mawr was looking at how people process emotion. Danoff distilled her findings into a 20-page research paper, "Behavioral and Neural Correlates of Emotion Word Processing," as her full-time summer internship carried on into the fall.
"I also worked about 40 hours a week during the school year, because there was no other way to get it done," said Danoff. "I literally left school at three o'clock, went directly to the lab and came home at 10 or 11 o'clock. It was a very hectic couple of months."
Danoff and Zhang (as well as Lijie Xie of North Penn High School, Karen Christianson of Episcopal Academy in Newtown Square, Jonah Kallenbach of Germantown Academy in Ambler and Meghan Shea of Unionville High School) each will be awarded $1,000 for making the initial cut. The 300 semifinalists were selected from about 1,700 applications.
Both Danoff and Zhang say they're less concerned with the prize money or what comes next; being acknowledged by the Super Bowl of pre-college science is extremely validating.
"The sports analogies are pretty apt," said Wendy Hawkins, executive director of the Intel Foundation.
Intel has sponsored the decades-old talent search for the last 15 years. Hawkins says the program identifies the next generation of scientific leaders, giving them a share of limelight usually reserved for athletes.
"We believe this competition tries to level the playing field so that young scientists are recognized with that same level of fanfare and celebration," Hawkins said.
Forty finalists will be named on Jan. 23. In March they'll report to Washington, D.C. for a weeklong competition.
"They're a very elite group of students," Hawkins said. "I think of it as sort of a seed crystal around which the U.S. science community of that generation can form."
Past finalists have included seven future Nobel Prize winners, five National Medal of Science honorees and 11 MacArthur "geniuses," according to Hawkins. (Fun fact: the talent search also lays claim to one Academy Award for best actress. Natalie Portman was a semifinalist in the late '90s.)
Following rigorous judging sessions in D.C., winners will be announced at a black-tie gala March 12. The top young scientist will be presented with a $100,000 award, while the remaining nine will divvy up $305,000.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story appeared under the headline Intel Science Talent Search taps 4 Philly-area students. Two additional students were brought to our attention after the story was published. The text has been updated to reflect the correct number of local semifinalists.