Oak Ridge High School team of seniors place first in nation's premier high-school competition in Science, Math and Technology.
In December 2006 three Oak Ridge boys won the high school equivalent of a Nobel Prize in science and a $100,000 scholarship by collaborating on a bioenergy project with their mentors from ORNL. The Oak Ridge High School team of seniors Scott Molony, Steven Arcangeli and Scott Horton (whose parents Linda and Joe Horton work at ORNL) placed first in the Siemens Competition in Science, Math and Technology, the nation's premier high-school science competition. The contest was held December 1–4 in New York City, and U.S. Ssecretary of Education Margaret Spellings presented the award.
Earlier, the ORHS seniors won a $6,000 scholarship in the Siemens competition by finishing first in their region. Their championship work also netted $2,000 for the school's science program and helped their mentors—computer scientists Nagiza Samatova, Tatiana Karpinets, Hoony Park and Chris Symons—win $800,000 in internal funding from ORNL's Laboratory Directed Research and Development program. Samatova had mentored an ORHS team that placed fourth in the 2005 Siemens competition, making the 2006 win the first time the competition has had repeat finalists from the same school.
Both winning teams came from ORHS calculus teacher Benita Albert's "Math, Science, Computer Science Thesis" class. Last spring when Samatova talked to this class about her research, she suggested that bioenergy, an ORNL strategic research direction, could be a winning Siemens competition topic. Last summer Albert sent six students to ORNL where they learned about the systems biology supercomputer tools developed by Samatova's team and read papers and presented seminars on bioenergy, filling gaps in the researchers' knowledge.
The winning team worked long days June 1 through August 11, 2006, at ORNL learning graph theory, statistics, bioinformatics, systems biology, artificial intelligence and programming in C++. Scott Horton expressed interest in applying ORNL supercomputer tools to biology questions, so for their thesis the three boys chose to evaluate how well these tools could be applied to understanding the mechanisms by which microbes efficiently convert biomass to ethanol. Focusing on 28 bacterial genomes, half of which grow in oxygen and half of which do not, the boys wrote programs to identify genes and biochemical pathways linked to traits that are important to the industrial conversion of biomass to ethanol—resistance to high temperature, metabolism of multiple sugar types and high ethanol yield. They improved ORNL codes to allow two supercomputers to better handle high volumes of data. Last autumn, they continued their research an hour a day in their "math thesis" class and every Wednesday afternoon at ORNL.
Applying their graph-theory methodology to Zymonas mobilis, an industrially accepted bacterium for bioethanol production, the boys found their computational results agreed with experimental results on the same microorganism published in a Nature Biotechnology paper. The students' methodology, when applied to thousands of microbes, might suggest ways to genetically endow a microorganism with a collection of traits needed to engineer an incredibly high yield of ethanol—and maybe dollars.—Carolyn Krause
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