2016 Intel ISEF Finalists Selected

The regional competition for the international ISEF was held on March 19th at the Beckman Center, which singled out four exemplary projects that will advance to the next level. After the regional fair, the four finalists will advance to the state fair and compete for the chance to attend the national competition held in Phoenix, AZ from May 8th to 13th. ISEF is the largest pre-college science competition, with about 1700 students who will receive the opportunity to compete in the finals and win about 4 million dollars in prizes.


The importance of Science Fairs, including the ISEF, is extensive. Science fairs “drive curiosity and innovation at all levels, and so having students come and present their ideas and see what other kids have come up with, and foster that culture of bringing science to your peers and talking about it, it’s really going to help [prepare] students to pursue science careers and see that it is fun,” said Dr. Anne Hultgren, the CEO of the Beckman Foundation, when asked about what she hoped students would take away from competing in ISEF. “It helps build the new generation who are going to go on and be the great scientists and new inventors and the new generation.”


There was a number of engineering projects this year, largely due to the creation of a board by Steven Hobbes, the Director of Judging, to change the scoring and application process, making it more inclusive for the engineering aspect of the Orange County Science and Engineering Fair.  Along with the engineering projects, many other projects focused on Biology-based experiments. Linghao Kong, a sophomore from University High School, studied the effects of tumor suppressor protein p53 on the metabolic pathway, working through the challenges of a complex microscope. His simple desire to work with a laser drove him to pursue an ambitious project, qualifying him for the top 8 in the competition.


Science Fair Projects are extremely time consuming, taking Michael Wu, a sophomore from University High School, more than 300 hours to complete his project, “An Analysis of Soa Produced From a Novel Liquid-Phase Reactor and their Impact on Climate.” These projects also require an intense amount of dedication as well as “ a desire to do well and an interest in how things work,” says Hobbes. Hobbes stresses the importance of the research, as of ISEF’s biggest goals is to encourage young students to pursue the fields of science and engineering. “Seeing how much these young students can accomplish and what they do with their lives… [sets] them far ahead of their peers”, Mr. Hobbes stated when asked about the benefits of participating in a competition such as ISEF. When considering a project, the judges look for novelty, a strong foundation in their area of study, data, and a proven or negated hypothesis.


The host of the competition, the Beckman Foundation, was founded by Dr. Arnold and Mabel Beckman, supporting basic scientific research in the USA. “The Beckman Foundation contributes many millions of dollars each year to science education,” said Gerald Gallwas, a board member of the Beckman Foundation.  The Beckman Foundation has a reputation for sponsoring and hosting multiple organizations across the nation, and the ISEF is no exception to its generosity. Some of the programs hosted are “an undergraduate fellowship program, where undergraduates across the country become Beckman scholars for eighteen months of their career and foster[ing] new assistant professors across the country as well.” When asked how Dr. Beckman would view his science legacy with ISEF, Mr. Gallwas responded that Dr. Beckman would be “thrilled, [as] ninety years ago, they didn’t have competitions like [ISEF], and he was born in the time when there were only 20,000 automobiles in the United States.” As Dr. Beckman advanced through his long lifetime, he “saw the invention of the commercialization of airplanes, telephones [becoming] popular…, and he went on to [found] one of the first supercomputers.” He was, Mr. Gallwas added, “a man for all seasons.”


The finalists are:




     Anna Lou, a junior at Oxford Academy, is an ISEF science fair finalist. This prestigious honor is only given to 4 students in the regional competition.


     Anna has been programming and coding since she was ten years old, and she is a USA Chemistry Olympiad national exam qualifier. To combine her two passions together, she created a project that devises a way “...to solve real-world problems” using technology.


     In Anna’s project titled “Closing the Achievement Gap in STEM: The Influence of Prior Knowledge on the Guidance Effects in Technology-Based Guided Student-Centered Learning,” she utilizes “technology to accurately implement many research-recommended guidance forms into a web-based instructional tool to teach stoichiometry…”


     For the past 3 years, Anna has been working tirelessly to achieve her goal. “I’ve spent hundreds of hours attending and presenting at UCI lab meetings,” she says, “updating myself with the latest research through a UCI course and dozens of research papers, developing and fully implementing my instructional tool, designing and conducting experiments, and so on and so forth.”


     Throughout the process of drafting her project, Anna overcame many obstacles. With a total of 17 major versions of her tool, the debugging process took hundreds of hours. She also talked to and got opinions from 5 chemistry teachers. Though very tedious, Anna assures that she “...definitely enjoyed the project.”


     At the ISEF regional competition, Anna realized that “[she] hasn’t seen a lot of high schoolers near [her] doing Cognitive Science projects, “ so at the finalist competition, she is “...really excited to meet and talk with others at ISEF who research in the same field.” She cannot wait to present all her hard work to peers with similar interests. In the future, Anna hopes that her “...innovative research-based technology [can] close the achievement gap and improve STEM education in the United States.”




     Charles Noyes is currently a junior at Villa Park High School, but next year he will be attending  the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or more commonly known as MIT. Charles is one of four ISEF finalists from this year's Intel science fair competition.


     Last year, he advanced to the international Intel Fair competition, where he won the Philip V. Streich Memorial Award for his project titled “BitAV: Fast Anti-Malware by Distributed Blockchain Consensus and Feedforward Scanning.” This year, he hopes to advance to the international competition again. “I made a lot of friends last year,” says Charles, “and I can't wait to present my project and see everyone again.”


     After spending over 500 hours on his project, titled “Pandora: A Blockchain-Driven Secure Multiparty Computation Market at Scale”, Charles “created a way to massively improve the efficiency of pooled processing over the internet.” He hopes that in the future, his project can “...make technologies much, much cheaper by allowing for the efficient offloading of hard processing to our (very computationally cheap) processing network.” He has already released all of his code, data, and papers as open-source works.


     Throughout the process of creating his project, Charles faced many obstacles. “The main obstacle I faced,” he says, “was doing this research independently -- last year I had multiple mentors who were able to help me and provide guidance, but this year I decided to pursue my research on my own.”


     Though it required hard work to accomplish his goal, Charles explained that “...the experience of going to ISEF last year and presenting [his] project exposed [him] to a lot of smart people with interesting ideas and research interests.”




     Michelle Xu, a sophomore at Beckman High School, is one of four finalists in the Intel Science and Engineering Fair competition that was held on March 19, 2016 in the Beckman center. Her project is titled “Contact Order and its Application on the Hydrophobic-Polar Lattice Model for Protein Folding through Ant Colony Optimization.”


     Michelle pursued this project because she has always been “interested in biology and wanted to gain more exposure in biochemistry.” She realized “...that one of the problems is that we can’t determine [the structure of] a protein just from its sequence.” After spending countless hours researching extensively, she developed a way to mathematically model proteins without the use of experimental data. Michelle’s “results show that the [calculated] structures are close to the experimental structures.”


     Though she is now an ISEF finalist, the process to reach her goal was long and difficult. “The most challenging part,” she said, “was finding the right model to use for my calculations because initially, the model that I used didn't give me very accurate results. So it took a lot to find the right model.”


     To build upon her experiment in the future, Michelle plans to calculate the structure of larger proteins by examining the characteristics of each of the twenty individual amino acids.




     Varun Mandi, a senior at Troy High School in Fullerton, is one of four ISEF finalists after going through 2 rounds of interviews at the regional ISEF competition.


     Varun has been working on his project titled “Examining the Coding and Non-Coding Regions of Enhancer Landscapes in Vascular Smooth Muscle Cells (VSMCs) Stimulated with Angiotensin II,” for the past two years. His goal for this project is to “...understand the genetic and epigenetic implications of metabolic diseases - primarily diabetes and hypertension - with which the hormone Angiotensin II is associated.”


     Inspired to pursue his project by his parents and grandparents, Varun, who comes from a South Asian background, “...noted [his] family's acceptance of diabetes and hypertension as inevitable complications rooted in ‘our genetics.’” Not accepting this idea as the answer to his family’s health problems, Varun realized that his curiosity “...was sparked and fueled...” to pursue this ambitious project because of the prevalence of obesity and cardiovascular disease in not only his family, but around the world.


     Varun “...can't wait to meet student-scientists from across the globe” at the Intel finalist fair. With a love for different languages, cultures, and current and relevant issues, he “...hope[s] to enjoy a week full of discussion, presentation, and learning.” Always eager to learn new things, Varun “...want[s] to discuss [his] findings with students who are investigating in a completely different field, such as physics, while understanding their experiments [as well].”


     In the future, he plans to expand upon his project in hopes that it will address modern day issues such as “...identifying active elements of our genome, redefining poorly characterized elements, and understanding where cardiovascular drugs may be actually acting...” to help improve the lives of people living with cardiovascular disease.