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Southland students meet Obama during national science competition

March 13, 2012 |  9:44 pm

Jack Li, 18, of El Segundo High School was one of 40 finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search competition held in Washington.

The high school seniors thought meeting President Obama was the coolest part of their trip to Washington.

That was until a handful of them walked away with tens of thousands of dollars in prize money at Tuesday evening’s Intel Science Talent Search, one of the nation's most rigorous and revered science competitions for high school students.

Jack Li, 18, of El Segundo, had worked for months on his research project and was one of 40 finalists who traveled to the nation's capital to present their work and compete for the top 10 awards. Li, one of five Southern California high school seniors who made the cut, and his fellow student researchers capped a week of competition with a visit from Obama in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

“I just met the president this morning,” said a still-stunned Li on Tuesday afternoon. “I got to shake his hand.”  

Meredith Paloma Lehmann, 16, of La Jolla; Jiaceng Li, 18, of Arcadia; Sayoni Saha, 17, of Cerritos; and Leon Yao, 17, of Diamond Bar were also finalists in Intel's competition. With a top prize of $100,000, a chance to talk with renowned experts in his field and 39 other bright students around him, Jack Li said the trip was “great,” even though he didn't win. 

Li had been working on creating a capsule that can protect orally consumed enzymes from being prematurely broken down during digestion. He said enzymes can help treat genetic disorders, and he has been specifically researching how an enzyme protected by a capsule could help treat phenylketonuria.

Students’ other topics included such topics as photodynamic cancer therapy and water conservation solutions, as well as fiber-optic research related to Internet data security. Nithin Tumma, 17, of Fort Gratiot, Mich., won the top prize of $100,000 for his research in slowing the growth of cancer cells, which could help develop effective and less toxic breast cancer treatments.

Three of the top 10 finalists -- receiving $40,000 and $20,000 prizes -- are California students.

Event spokeswoman Gail Dundas called the finalists “40 of the smartest kids in the United States.” The students were on Capitol Hill on Tuesday afternoon meeting with legislators and attending a black-tie gala where the winners were announced.

But more than the final results, Dundas said the kids most enjoyed meeting other curious, like-minded people. 

“They tell us they’ve made life long friendships,” she said. 

“And we can track that,” she joked, “because we have them in a Facebook group.”

The 40 finalists were selected from a group of 1,839 students, all of whom submitted a 20-page research paper along with essays, test scores and transcripts. Nine of the 40 finalists were from California, which ranked second only to New York, which had 10.


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Photo: Jack Li, 18, of El Segundo High School was one of 40 finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search competition held in Washington. Credit: Gail Dundas / Intel.