COLUMBIA — Eighteen-year-old Elizabeth Choe wasn’t expecting to be a semifinalist in a nationwide science talent search.
The 2009 Hickman High School graduate had worked at the Cancer Research Center in Columbia for two years when she decided during her senior year to enter the 2009 Intel Science Talent Search.
"It was a culmination of all my hard work," Choe said. Winning "was kind of icing on the cake.”
Both Choe and fellow graduate Ashok Cutkosky were named semifinalists in the competition judging students' projects and their promise as future scientists. The 300 semifinalists selected received $1,000 college scholarships.
The students' schools were also sent a voucher for $1,000 to support science and math activities, said Nancy Moulding, membership and communications associate of Society for Science & the Public, a non-profit organization dedicated to engaging the public in scientific research and education.
Choe studied therapeutic Salmonella-infected prostate tumors in mice and characterized the genetic diversity of the recovered bacteria. Abraham Eisenstark, research director of the Cancer Research Center, helped demonstrate the basic microbiology techniques and suggested experiments that Choe could use in her research.
"The study is very fascinating to me and of huge relevance," Choe said.
Choe said she hopes to relieve stress from complications of cancer therapies, such as chemotherapy and the side effect of nausea. The long-term goal of the study is to one day work with humans.
"It's nice to know you're working on something that's going to improve the quality of people's treatment with cancer," Choe said.
Meanwhile, Cutkosky spent four months doing a mathematics research project. He studied hypergraphs, hoping to prove the structure of algebraic structures called associated primes.
“My adviser had a theorem that provided a very easy way to detect associated primes in two-dimensional graphs,” Cutkosky said.
However, Cutkosky was able to provide an alternate method of detecting primes for a hypergraph in any dimension, relying on different structures than those used in the two-dimensional theorem.
Cutkosky said the project allowed him to combine his interest in computer programming with his interest in mathematics.
"Doing this research represented an opportunity to contribute something original to the world, a bit like making a painting or writing a book," Cutkosky said.
Cutkosky entered the Siemens Competition, a math, science and technology competition that recognizes remarkable talent in high school students through scientific research, using the same project. So when he placed nationally in that competition, he wasn't surprised to be a semifinalist in the Intel Science Talent Search.
Chris Francisco, now an assistant professor in the math department at Oklahoma State University, was Cutkosky’s adviser.
“Ashok is a brilliant kid, and it was great to watch him figure things out while he got excited doing research,” Francisco said.
Judges looked at how well-rounded students were, as well as the originality of the project. Students were expected to submit a 20-page research paper, which could be a progression of a project they completed in high school, Moulding said.
Test scores, transcripts and a supervising scientist form were then submitted, describing the research or experiments that took place under the guidance of a professor or adviser. Recommendations by teachers or mentors were also important, Moulding said.
Each paper was read by three evaluators. The top one-third of the papers advanced to the final group of judges, Moulding said. The deadline for next year's competition is at 8 p.m. on Nov. 19.
This fall, Choe will be attending MIT, and Cutkosky will be attending Harvard University. Cutkosky said the science talent competition gave him confidence for the future.
“It was definitely a good experience to be able to do the research and participate in the competition,” Cutkosky said. “It gives you a good idea of what it’s like to be a scientist.”
Cutkosky said he would like to be a professor in the future.
"Because of this competition, I know it’s a job I’d one day like to have.”