SIAM Awards Two Prizes at the 2006 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair

July 6, 2006

Kelly Black and Kurt Bryan

The 2006 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair was held in Indianapolis, May 7–12. Now in its 56th year, ISEF is the largest science fair in the world for students in grades 9 to 12. This year's more than 1400 participating students had come from more than 40 countries. They had made it to ISEF by winning local and regional competitions, and so represent the very "best of the best." Many are already doing work of a professional caliber.

To recognize significant and insightful applications of mathematics, SIAM sponsored two awards, a first place and an honorable mention. First place, with an award of $1000, went to Daniel Zheng, from Saint Paul, Minnesota, for a project titled "Mathematical Modeling of Smoking Effect on Down Syndrome." Honorable mention, with an award of $250, was given to a two-student team, Gabriel Mendoza and Frederick Rojas, from El Paso, Texas; their entry was "Stochastic/Deterministic Analysis of Arbovirus Transovarial Transmission in Culicidae."

Three people represented SIAM in the judging: Bruno Beith of IUPUI and the two of us. The judging took place over two days, May 9 and 10. On the first day, with no students present, we inspected their posters and drew up a list of candidate projects for the SIAM prizes. We spent the second day examining these top-rated projects more closely and interviewing the students.

Initially, we considered any project in any discipline as a potential candidate for the SIAM prizes. The first day, therefore, entailed a considerable amount of leg work as we constructed a short list of projects we wanted to examine in more detail. Overall, the entries in the fair fell into a large number of categories, ranging from the behavioral sciences to zoology; those that made our short list came from almost the entire spectrum.

We ended up with a short list of 13 projects: one each in behavioral sciences, chemistry, zoology, medicine, and physics, two in mathematics, and the remainder in engineering and computer science. Our only criterion for inclusion on the short list was appropriate use of some nontrivial mathematical analysis. No distribution in topic areas was specified, and we were pleased to see such a wide variety of topics on our list at the end of the day.

In his first-place entry, Daniel Zheng examined the long-term effects of smoking on the incidence of Down syndrome. His project included an insightful mathematical model based on a system of ordinary differential equations. Zheng was able to clearly describe the mathematical model and ex-plain how he had arrived at and simplified the various terms in the equations. Using a fourth-order Runge–Kutta scheme, implemented with an Excel spreadsheet, he had constructed numerical solutions. Most importantly, he was able to interpret the output and validate his results against real data. His work provides insight into the mechanisms by which smoking affects the survival rate of children born with Down syndrome. In developing his project, Zheng made use of a wide range of skills and techniques, and we were most impressed by his strong grasp of all of the activities involved.

The team whose entry received honorable mention, Gabriel Mendoza and Frederick Rojas, had investigated the spread of the West Nile virus. The pair took part in a staggering range of activities: After conducting their own surveys of mosquitoes, they used maximum likelihood techniques to estimate incidence rates of the West Nile virus. They devised not only their own techniques for mosquito capture, but also schemes to ensure good spatial representation in their sampling procedures. Beginning with established models of transmission based on nonlinear systems of ordinary differential equations, they converted them to systems of difference equations; then, using a variety of computational tools, they constructed numerical solutions. Along with their data, this allowed them to simulate and examine various strategies for mosquito population control. The judges were impressed by the extensive range of techniques that this team used, and how they were able to seamlessly integrate them throughout their project.

Kelly Black, a member of the SIAM Education Committee, is a professor of mathematics at Union College. Kurt Bryan is a professor of mathematics at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.

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