Practical Applications

Each year, 1,400 high-school students from more than 40 countries are invited to compete in the prestigious Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF), the world's largest precollege science contest. The select group of young scientists is chosen from the several million students who compete in local and regional science fairs throughout the year. Participants compete for $3 million in scholarships and prizes, presenting projects in 15 categories like medicine, biochemistry, computer science and zoology. Earning top honors isn't the only goal for contestants. Nineteen percent (or 274) of the finalists at the 2005 competition held last month have already begun the process to patent their projects.

Here's a look at some of this year's top projects:

Ameen Abdulrasool, a senior at the Illinois Junior Academy of Science, won top honors at this year's Intel ISEF for his project, "Prototype for Autonomy: Pathway for the Blind." He walked away with $70,000 in prize money and a free trip to October's Nobel Prize ceremony. Abdulrasool developed technology that allows visually impaired individuals to navigate themselves from one location to another by using the Global Positioning System (much like General Motors' OnStar system). Individuals wear a one-pound Walkman-size device, a bracelet on each arm and a pair of earphones. After entering a starting and ending location into a personal digital assistant (PDA), they are guided with verbal commands that tell them when and in what direction to turn. Simultaneously, a bracelet vibrates signaling the correct direction. To test his device, Abdulrasool recruited 36 blind adults and asked them to visit five landmarks in his neighborhood. The navigational tool saved people an average of 26 minutes in travel time and reduced the number of errors (wrong turns and missed locations). "Looking at how hard it was for them to travel and how they were dependent on everyone else motivated me to do something," he says. Abdulrasool hopes is applying for a patent and then plans to market the product commercially.

Jeffrey Bhasin, an 18-year old student from Rocky River, Ohio, won $3,000 and the "top category award" in the medicine and health division. His project, "A Comprehensive Evolutionary Study of Disease-Causing Amino Acid Substitutions Using Computational Analysis," applied computer science to biology to determine if disease-causing mutations present in human genes exist among non-disease-causing genes of nonhuman vertebrates. Using a database of mutation sequences in humans, Bhasin developed a computer program to compare these mutated gene sequences to the sequences of vertebrates such as chimpanzees and mice. In laymen's terms, Bhasin determined biological differences between humans and animals, identifying the specific biochemical changes that lead to beneficial genes in one species and cancerous genes in another. "Deciphering the functional changes that occur between species that result in disease will eventually lead to understanding disease mechanisms, paving the way to eliminate or reduce diseases and create effective treatments," he says. Dr. Mark Adams, associate professor of genetics at Case Western Reserve University and Bhasin's adviser for the project, notes that scientists only had anecdotal evidence prior to this project. "I'm not aware of anyone else who has taken as a comprehensive approach as Jeffery took." Bhasin plans to continue his research next fall as a freshman at Duke University.

Craig Hawes may be one of the few participants who is already benefiting from his own invention. Born without the lower half of his right arm, Hawes, an 18-year-old from Perham, Minn., understands firsthand the discomfort of wearing a prosthetic limb. As an individual grows, a new prosthesis must be made to prevent the socket from constricting the residual limb. Obtaining a new prosthesis can be a long and painful process--especially for teenagers who can outgrow their prosthesis every few months. The devices take one month to make and their hefty price tag ($4,000) means insurance companies will only cover one per year. Last December Hawes began experiencing a stinging pain and intense pressure at his socket. His doctor heated the fiberglass socket, hoping to expand it, and then attempted to grind material out from the socket to make room for the residual limb. Neither method worked. "What I really needed was a socket that would expand out as I needed it to," Hawes says. Using a computer-numerical control mill he created a prosthetic and then with the help of hose clamps, zip ties, and pipe installation created a socket he could adjust by hand whenever necessary. The grand total? $20. Before applying for a patent, Hawes wants to make his device more durable to withstand everyday use. He is currently testing new materials.

Participants like Abdulrasool, Bhasin, and Hawes have reason to be hopeful. In the fair's 56-year history, a number of projects have been implemented for commercial use. Michael Nyberg, a 2001 competitor, hoped to reduce the number of West Nile virus infections through acoustics. With a bucket of mosquito larvae and a sound generator, Nyberg discovered that a 24 kHz frequency resonated with the natural frequency of mosquitoes' internal organs: larvae that absorbed the acoustic energy would explode. His sound-emitting device, Larvasonic, is now sold online ( Tiffany Clark, a 1999 competitor, found evidence that bacteria produced the methane gas found inside coal seams in Wyoming's Powder River Basin. This suggested that injecting nutrients into coal seams might provide an unlimited supply of natural gas. A Denver-based technology firm is now continuing Clark's high-school research. And someday soon, blind people around the world may be wearing bracelets that issue GPS commands, amputees may be fitted with the expandable prosthetics Hawes developed and cancer patients may be one step closer to a cure, thanks to Bhasin's research.

"These kids are solving the problems that have puzzled scientists for years," says Larry Bellipanni, professor of biological sciences at the University of Southern Mississippi. Bellipanni, who has attended international science fairs for 42 years, conducted a two-year study of ISEF in 1992 and 1993. "If we ever cut out ISEF, we would cut out a lot of innovation and research that could be done before these students get to college." And once on campus, there is no telling what problems these students will solve.