Local students are two of the four Oregon talent search semifinalists
Srinidhi Viswanathan remembers how she felt when a middle school teacher showed her a Petri dish housing tiny colonies of protein and bacteria.
'I was fascinated. It really sparked my interest in science,' she says.
Now a senior at Westview High School, Viswanathan's fascination is already reaping rewards.
She and her classmate, Sidharth Dhawan, learned Wednesday morning they were chosen as semifinalists in the 2012 Intel Science Talent Search competition.
The Westview seniors were among four Oregon students Intel chose from 300 seniors across the country for a competition the Hillsboro-based silicon-technology giant hails as the nation's 'oldest and most prestigious' pre-college science competition.
Westview Principal Mike Chamberlain, Assistant Principal Drew Cronk and Intel officials surprised the two seniors with balloons and fanfare when they made the announcement during Eric Walters' advance-placement physics class.
'I had a feeling about this,' Viswanathan, 18, said after the brief ceremony.
Each semifinalist receives a $1,000 award from the Intel Foundation with an additional $1,000 going to the school. This year's competition draws from 1,839 entrants from 497 different high schools in 44 states, the District of Columbia and three overseas schools.
Viswanathan was recognized for her project, 'Influences of Crude Oil and Corexit on Metabolic and Genetic Modifications in Cycloclasticus Pugetti: Implications for Bioremediation of Oil Spills.'
In other words, she explored methods of using naturally occurring bacteria to break down crude oil when it's accidentally spilled into the ocean and other waterways.
Viswanathan spent seven weeks last summer with a professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock on the techniques, which companies including British Petroleum have used to mitigate environmental damage from catastrophic offshore oil spills.
'The problem is it's often slow,' she said of the process. 'And we don't know how (certain) species react in water. We identified certain proteins in the bacteria so we can target them and accelerate them. The oil gets remediated faster and (inflicts) less environmental damage.'
Dhawan's project, 'Complexity of Interlocking Polyominoes,' explores mathematical approaches to connecting 'polyominoes' - plane geometric figures formed by joining equal squares edge to edge - with five or fewer squares.
He studied the concepts last summer with a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Practical applications could lead to a better understanding of how protein shapes are arranged and bond to each other as well as address motion problems in the robotics field, such as a robot negotiating a room full of desks and chairs.
'The project helps to understand more about motion planning (and) applications in robotics,' he said. 'I thought it would stand out, but I didn't know it would become a (Science Talent Search) semifinalist.'
Dhawan's father, Manoj, is an engineer at Intel as is Viswanathan's dad, Vish.
Westview Principal Mike Chamberlain said the recognition couldn't come to more promising students.
'They're wonderful human beings and role models, very well balanced,' he said. 'They're really bright kids and involved in a lot of things other than class, which is what you want.'
He said the combined $2,000 award money the two students bring to the school will provide a timely boost to the science instruction department.
'It's quite an award, monetarily, for us,' he said, noting Westview had one Intel semifinalist student last year. 'It represents a lot of hard work.'
On Jan. 25, Intel will name 40 finalists who will receive an all-expenses paid trip to Washington, D.C., from March 8 to 13. They will compete for more than $1.25 million in awards provided by the Intel Foundation, said Bill MacKenzie, Intel corporate affairs spokesman.
Competition winners will be announced on March 13.
Viswanathan said she hopes her recognition will benefit other students interested in exploring the unknown.
'I hope it inspires others to pursue research and compete,' she said. 'Intel is doing a great job of recognizing high school students.
'Research is the future of our country. We ought to have more competitions like this - not just science, but the problem solving that goes into it.'