- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2008

For those who worry that the United States is falling behind other countries in math, science and technology, here is a glimmer of hope: Three high school seniors, all girls, have been honored by first lady Laura Bush as the winners of a nationwide science competition sponsored by the Siemens Foundation.

The students, all 17, explored new ways to treat drug-resistant tuberculosis and examined bone growth with the goal of combating bone disorders.

It was the first time in the nine-year history of Siemens’ competition in math, science and technology that girls swept the top prizes.

“I think there’s a great message to young ladies across the country: that they can compete and win at the highest levels,” said James Whaley, president of the foundation.

Each winner outperformed more than 1,600 other high school students nationwide to claim a $100,000 grand prize. Two of the girls worked as a team and split their winnings, while the third won the individual category and received a full $100,000.

Scientists from six research universities judged the entries at the regional level.

The team winners were Janelle Schlossberger and Amanda Marinoff, seniors at Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School in Plainview, N.Y.

Isha Himani Jain, a senior at Freedom High School in Bethlehem, Pa., topped the individual category.

Isha’s research determined that the fin bones of zebra fish grow through multiple pulses of cell proliferation. The pattern helps clarify the fundamentals of bone development, she said.

“It definitely takes a lot of patience,” she said of her winning project, which she began when she was in ninth grade. But “every student should attempt” to get into a science lab and explore an area of interest, she said.

Janelle and Amanda studied FtsZ inhibitors as a treatment for drug-resistant tuberculosis, taking compounds that are used to fight tubulin in cancer cells and targeting those compounds at the bacterial cells in tuberculosis. Their work showed that the compounds indeed helped inhibit the FtsZ activity.

“It was wonderful to see an idea transform into a reality,” Janelle said.

Inspiring children to study math, science and technology is a challenge, educators say. An international test given to 15-year-olds from 30 industrialized countries showed that the average score among American students was lower than the average scores of their counterparts in 16 other countries. American students’ average math score lagged behind those of 23 other countries, the Associated Press reported in December.

Mr. Whaley said the Siemens competition “represents all that is good in the American education system: parents involved, teachers inspiring, a foundation that celebrates their achievement.”

“You have something we can be proud of,” he added. “That said, we still have a lot of challenges.”

With varying state standards and high dropout rates, a lot of work remains for educators, he said.

Helping to solve the problem, he said, are private companies and foundations.

Siemens is a $96 billion electronics company with 400,000 employees worldwide who work to improve technologies in areas including medical, transportation, lighting and water.

The Siemens Foundation was started in 1998 to provide nearly $2 million in college scholarships and awards each year to talented U.S. high school students. In addition to the science competition, the foundation gives financial awards to students who perform well in advanced placement exams and teachers who excel in the classroom for advanced placement math, science and technology. The foundation also gives a grant to one high school in each state that shows leadership in advanced placement performance in math, science and technology.

The foundation also holds Siemens Science Days, where Siemens volunteers teach math and science to elementary school children.

“What we’re trying to do is have a partnership between the public and private sectors,” Mr. Whaley said. “We realize that not everyone is going to go into math and science, but what we want to do is make sure that that avenue is not shut down to anyone.”

For the three Siemens winners, interest in science began at a young age, but each girl was affected by different factors.

Science has always surrounded Isha, whose mother is a physician and father an engineer. A fifth-grade project on the science of candy deepened her interest and she began taking math classes at a local university.

Neither Janelle nor Amanda comes from a family of scientists, but both were interested in the subject in grammar school. Amanda said her interest deepened in high school when she stepped into a lab for the first time. The girls eventually participated in a program at their high school that allowed them to conduct research at local universities.

All three of the girls will use their winnings to help pay for college.

In the short term, the girls will stay busy. Isha is planning a trip to Germany to research a protein that controls cell division. Amanda and Janelle will try to spread their passion for science to fifth- and sixth-graders in the Bronx borough of New York, and will be assisting with an upcoming Siemens Science Day.

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