Edge of Innovation

After the Confetti: Updates on 2014’s Ultimate Science Fair Champs

Last year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair winners follow up on their breakthrough work in cancer, mathematics and a way to get battery power from an eggplant.

Nathan Han describes it as the perfect storm.

It was the moment everything came together for the young Bostonian, as he wove statistics, biology and computer science together to create a breakthrough diagnostic tool for cancer.

Consider this: Han was just 15 at the time. And he didn’t make his discovery in a high-tech lab. He did it at home.

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“Nathan’s work has shown people around the world that age doesn’t matter when good ideas meet technology, ingenuity and dedication,” says Maya Aimera, President and CEO of Society for Science and the Public. “His research is extraordinary, not only because of the results he found, but because it also inspires other young innovators.”

Determined to study mutations of a gene linked to ovarian cancer (after a friend was diagnosed with the disease), Han set out to conduct research, but because of his age, he was unable to find a lab willing to grant him access.

Working from a computer he put together at home, Han mined data from publicly available medical databases, detailing the characteristics and known mutations of a gene vital in protecting cells from developing cancer. He then “taught” his software to differentiate between mutations that cause disease and those that don’t.

The result: software that can identify cancer threats from BRCA1 gene mutations with an 81 percent accuracy rate.

Not only can Han’s research provide early cancer diagnosis, it has applications in precision medicine, as well as the developing fields of genomics, bioinformatics and big data.

This discovery earned Han a spot at the world’s largest pre-college science competition, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), in 2014. He beat out some 1,700 other finalists to win the top honor, the Gordon E. Moore Award, plus a $75,000 scholarship.

One year later, Han — now 16 and a sophomore in high school — reports that he’s gained some cred on the local research circuit.

He spent last summer as an intern at the Intel Science and Technology Center for Big Data located at MIT, helping to develop next-generation database architecture for storing and processing terabytes or even petabytes of genomics information — that is, data sets so large and complex that traditional data processing platforms are inadequate — in support of fast-expanding efforts in cancer genomics.

He has also continued to work on his bioinformatics cancer research, which he plans to publish soon. He’s been sharing it with others, notably as a guest speaker at the 2014 Massachusetts STEM Summit and in the “20 Under 20” presentation at Maker Faire Rome 2014.

Next on the docket for this young mover and shaker: “To broaden my scope of knowledge in the field of genomics, specifically the potential utilization of big data technology,” he said.

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Lennart Kleinwort of Wurzburg, Germany was also 15 when he presented a new mathematical tool for smartphones and tablets at ISEF 2014. Called FreeGeo, the free app enables users to draw curves, lines and geometric figures on the touch screen and watch while the system renders them into shapes and equations that can then be manipulated at will.

Kleinwort’s goal was to make mathematics instruction more interesting for students, extend the knowledge of mathematics systems, and maybe even increase the potential for new discoveries.

For this work, Kleinwort received an Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award and a $50,000 scholarship.

Now, a year later, the high school sophomore reports that he’s used feedback from users to continually improve his application’s usability and functionality. He joined Han as a “20 Under 20” presenter in Rome, and is wrapping up a three-month stint as an exchange student in France.

He’s also busy developing his next round of apps.

“One is a version of my application for 3D mathematics,” he said. “Another is based on artificial intelligence.”

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Shannon Lee from Singapore, who was 17 years old at last year’s ISEF, developed a novel improvement on the battery — made entirely from carbonized Chinese eggplant. Lee’s electrocatalyst, which shows promising performance, could significantly improve batteries of the future, with potential applications in high-energy-consuming electronics and both hybrid and electric vehicles, among others.

“The beauty of it lies in its simplicity: take an eggplant, treat it using very simple methods, and you get an efficient electrocatalyst,” Lee said. “Additionally, it’s greener and cheaper.”

Lee, who plans to study medicine at university next year with the goal of becoming a physician, received an Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award at ISEF 2014 and a $50,000 scholarship.

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Inspired to help others after his grandfather suffered a stroke, Marek Novak of the Czech Republic designed and developed a wireless health-monitoring smartwatch.

Novak’s system uses small sensors attached to a user’s body or clothing to relay information such as heart rate, blood oxygen level, temperature, degree of mobility and location to a smartwatch. This data is then shared remotely with a central unit, run by an Intel Galileo development board, which performs data processing and shares results with family members, a central nursing station or emergency services.

For his invention, Novak was awarded a Second Award in the category of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering at ISEF 2014.

Thanks to media exposure from the event, Novak landed a sizeable scholarship to study bioengineering at Czech Technical University, as well as a job developing high-tech medical devices for the Czech company TSE s.r.o.

Novak recently joined the Intel Galileo K-12 Content Creation Program, where he develops educational projects to teach students about electronics and programming.


An encounter with a speech-impaired man in his hometown of Bhubaneswar inspired 14-year-old Amrit Sahu of India to develop what he calls a voice-o-nator, a device able to speak for those who can’t.

Sahu studied the motion of the tongue and lips when creating certain sounds and used a three-axis accelerometer, connected to an artificial tongue, to ‘sense’ or capture the three-dimensional wave patterns by graphing them on X,Y and Z axes with respect to time.

He then used this data to program a Intel Galileo board-based device that interprets the data and transforms it into speech via a computer speaker. Through an Intel-organized event, he had the opportunity to present his work to the President of India.

He received a Fourth Award in the category of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering at ISEF 2014.

Sahu, now a sophomore in high school, has continued to develop his voice-o-nator with the goal of creating a working prototype. He is also working to secure industry or academia support to further his research and bring the device to market.

Now for Intel ISEF 2015

On May 10-15, a new group of high school students — nearly 1,700 winners of local, regional, state and national competitions around the globe — will arrive in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to attend Intel ISEF 2015. There, they will pitch their breakthrough ideas, cutting-edge research and novel inventions to esteemed judges as they compete for more than $5 million in awards and scholarships.


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