Siemens Competition Showcases Young Researchers

Young scholars present high-level math, science and technology research—and earn a total of $500,000 in scholarships—at annual event.

December 5, 2012

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For the student competitors in the 2012 Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology, research isn’t something they aspire to do when they reach graduate school, or even college. The 19 student finalists have already completed rigorous research in fields like biology, computer science, electrical engineering and mathematics at a level that astonished the judges for the annual competition, the national finals of which were held at the George Washington University.

“The judges perceived the students’ work as comparable to college senior or first-year graduate student work,” said Akos Vertes, a GW professor of chemistry and lead judge for the 2012 Siemens competition.

The competition, started in 1998, is sponsored by the Siemens Foundation and administered by the College Board. Six individuals and six teams competed in the finals, vying for a combined $500,000 in scholarship funds. Awards ranged from $10,000 to the $100,000 grand prizes.

At the award ceremony, held in the Marvin Center’s Betts Theater on Tuesday, George Washington President Steven Knapp commended the student finalists for their dedication to working on projects that will benefit society.

“The students in this competition are the ones who will lead us in tackling some of the most critical problems that we face, not just as a nation but as an international community as well,” he said. “These are challenges in fields like renewable energy, biomedicine, climate change, cybersecurity—an endless list that can only be addressed with the kind of energy, imagination and dedication that these students have already exhibited.” 

The individual grand prize went to Kensen Shi, a senior from College Station, Texas. His computer science research involved motion planning: finding a safe path for an object moving among obstacles, such as a personal-assistance robot would use to help an elderly patient. Mr. Shi developed a new algorithm that can compute safe paths for almost any type of robot more efficiently than ever before.

The team grand prize went to Jeremy Applebaum, William Gil and Allen Shin, all from Hewlett, N.Y. Their biology research involved devising a new way to study COP1, a protein in a certain type of plants that is linked to tumorigenesis, or the formation of tumors.

As a result of a three-year partnership between George Washington and Siemens, the university will continue to host the national finals of the competition through 2013. Regional partner universities—Carnegie Mellon, Notre Dame, MIT, University of Texas at Austin, California Institute of Technology and Georgia Institute of Technology—host the regional finals.

As part of the Siemens Competition national finals, GW invited D.C. middle and high school students and teachers to campus for a weekend workshop about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning and conducting original research. A group of School of Engineering and Applied Science students presented their research to the young students in fun and interactive ways in a session organized by Shahrokh Ahmadi, associate professor of electrical engineering.

Six recent SEAS alumni also participated in a panel discussion with the Siemens national finalists, discussing professional careers, their research and their academic experiences at the George Washington University. The panel also included a faculty presentation in which Gabriel Sibley, associate professor of computer science, spoke about his work in robotics.

Several SEAS students acted as mentors to the Siemens national finalists during the weekend of competition. John Gearheart, a senior biomedical engineering student and member of the SEASpan student mentoring program, spent Saturday evening with the Siemens finalists.

“During the competition, they felt stressed and anxious, and we were glad to help them relax and have fun with peers in the engineering world,” Mr. Gearheart said. “Being able to discuss a project while grooving toward a perfect score in a dancing video game is an experience you can only get in the young scientific community.”

Individual grand prize winner Mr. Shi said he has several other research ideas related to his winning project in motion planning, and that he hopes to explore them while pursing a degree in computer science. “Research is really exciting to me,” he said. “I’m going to continue to do research.”

And as for all the attention he’s getting after his big win?

“I’m definitely surprised. I wasn’t expecting this today. It took a few minutes for it all to sink in,” he said.