The Blair Magnet's Science Talent Search Success
by Ted Jou '99
Ms. Jonetta Russell organized the first Magnet Research Conference as the teacher for senior research projects in 1993. That year, the Blair Magnet made national headlines when three students, Steve Chien,Wei-Hwa Huang, and Elizabeth Mann (Washington Post), finished in the top ten of the Westinghouse Science Talent Search (New York Times). Although they were the first to receive broad national attention, they were not the first Magnet students to find success in the Westinghouse competition, as the Magnet had four finalists in the first four senior classes, supervised by the Magnet’s first research coordinator, Ms. Gloria Seelman: Maneesh Agrawala and Joshua Fischman were finalists in 1990, and Benjamin Jun and Debbie VanderZwaag in 1992. Many early connections to professors at the University of Maryland and researchers at the National Institutes of Health and other local facilities were established by a community volunteer, Dr. Michael Vaccaro (pdf/mbhs.edu).
The Magnet's Science Talent Search success continued in the 1990s, with another finalist in 1995, Samit Dasgupta, and a grand prize winner in 1996, Jacob Lurie, who took home a $40,000 scholarship (Washington Post). In 1998, David Wildstrom was another finalist, as it was becoming routine for the Magnet to have one or two exceptional students named finalists each year. It is no coincidence that Dasgupta (ucsc.edu), Lurie (harvard.edu), and Wildstrom (louisville.edu) are all now university math professors.
In 1999, Blair students would achieve a different level of success, and the Magnet would again make national headlines. This was the first year that Intel Corporation took over sponsorship of the Science Talent Search from Westinghouse, and it also happened to be the first year that Blair moved to its new campus on University Boulevard. In January 1999, after 11 Blair semifinalists were announced, Intel reached out to Blair to schedule an event in the new auditorium. On Monday, January 25, 1999, officials from Intel and the Society for Science and the Public came to Silver Spring to announce that an astonishing six of the 40 national finalists were from Blair. Each finalist was called to the stage to be recognized before their fellow students and teachers, and a headline on the front page of the Washington Post read: “School Hits It Big in Science Contest; Six of 40 Finalists in National Search Are From Blair High.” The six finalists were Wei-Li Deng, James Hansen, Grace Lin, Michael Maire, David Moore, and Scott Safranek. They were interviewed by the Gazette and appeared on NBC Nightly News. David would win second place in the final competition (intel.com), earning a $40,000 scholarship.
After the headlines of the 1999 Science Talent Search, several education reporters sought to learn the secrets of Blair’s success. The American Society for Engineering Education interviewed Ms. Russell and wrote a story about the fundamentals of research at the heart of the Magnet’s history and philosophy, teaching thinking over memorization, and emphasizing the practical aspects of research (prism-magazine.org). Ms. Eileen Steinkraus, the Magnet Coordinator, told the Washington Post about the importance of the students’ self-motivation, the teaching of communication skills, and the partnerships with many local universities and laboratories (Washington Post).
Whatever the secret formula, the Magnet continued its run of success in the Intel Science Talent Search year after year. In 2000, Blair had 13 semifinalists and two finalists (Elizabeth Epstein and Jonathan Simon). In 2001, Blair had 10 semifinalists and again two finalists (Alan Dunn and William Pastor). In 2002, Blair had an astonishing 17 semifinalists, leading the nation (Silver Chips). Among these semifinalists were Kang-Xing Jin, who would study Computer Science at Harvard and become an early employee at Facebook; Rahul Satija, who would earn a Rhodes Scholarship (Silver Chips) and become a biology professor at NYU (nyu.edu); and Bingni Wen, who would become a biology professor at the University of Washington and win a Sloan Research Fellowship. Three of the 17 would be named finalists, and the record success in 2002 was a fitting send-off for Ms. Russell, who retired after a decade at the helm of the Magnet Senior Research Project.
Dr. Glenda Torrence took over for Ms. Russell in 2002-03, and the Magnet’s momentum in the Science Talent Search continued with double-digit semifinalists in each of the next five years. Anatoly Preygel finished in third place in the 2003 Talent Search (Silver Chips), and he would later go on to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics at MIT under the supervision of Blair Magnet alumnus and former Westinghouse winner Jacob Lurie ’96 (mit.edu). Blair had two more finalists in 2004 (Silver Chips), four finalists in 2005 (Silver Chips), two finalists in 2006 (Silver Chips), and another two finalists in 2007 (Silver Chips). Dr. Torrence retired after five years teaching senior research, and the Magnet could claim ten consecutive years of finalists in the Science Talent Search. Blair was the only school with such a streak, and Blair's 25 finalists over this decade was ten more than any other school.
Ms. Susan Ragan stepped into the senior research teaching role in 2007-08, and Louis Wasserman extended the streak to eleven years when he was named a finalist in 2008 (Silver Chips). Blair had twelve semifinalists in 2009 (Silver Chips), when Ms. Ragan retired, passing the torch of the Senior Research Project to Ms. Elizabeth Duval. Ms. Duval would oversee Magnet Senior Research for the next three years, and Blair students continued to find success, with Science Talent Search finalists in 2010 (Silver Chips) and 2012 (Silver Chips). Blair had only seven semifinalists and no finalists in 2011 (Silver Chips), but that year’s Magnet seniors did particularly well in another competition, the Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology, which also claims a legacy to the Westinghouse competition, since it was Siemens AG that acquired Westinghouse Electric Corporation.
Major Prize Money and Minor Planets
Starting in 2000, Intel awarded $1,000 to schools for each semifinalist, and Regeneron has doubled that amount. Blair has thus received almost $200,000 over the years from Science Talent Search sponsors.
Since 2002, MIT Lincoln Labs has also been naming asteroids after finalists in the Science Talent Search and their teachers (mit.edu), so there are more than twenty celestial bodies named after Blair Magnet students, including minor planets named after Dr. Torrence (IAU), Ms. Ragan (IAU), Ms. Duval (IAU), Ms. Bosse (IAU), Mr. Walstein (IAU), and Mr. Pham (IAU).
In 2012-13, Ms. Angelique Bosse took over Magnet Senior Research, and Blair has had finalists in the Science Talent Search every year since then: one finalist in 2013 (Silver Chips), three finalists in 2014 (Silver Chips), one finalist in 2015 (Silver Chips) and two finalists in 2016 (Silver Chips). Blair’s three finalists in 2014 again led the nation, and the students were featured in stories in the Washington Post, WTOP, and the Gazette. Blair’s lone finalist in 2015, Michael Winer, won the First Place Medal of Distinction for Innovation and a $150,000 scholarship (Washington Post) (Silver Chips Video).
Intel’s sponsorship of the Science Talent Search ended in 2016 with an Awards Gala where several Magnet alumni returned for a mini-reunion (@MsBosseBlair). Over the 18 years that Intel sponsored the competition, no school was more successful. Blair had the most semifinalists (192) and the most finalists (34) in this era. This averages out to more than ten semifinalists and almost two finalists per year, outpacing other much larger Magnet schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science in New York, and Thomas Jefferson in Virginia. In 2016, a reporter again asked the Blair Magnet coordinator about Blair's secrets of success, and Mr. Peter Ostrander identified factors that were very similar to those cited in 1999: a combination of talented students who put in a lot of work, teachers who press them to look beyond the scope of a typical class, and a local area that values academic performance and research (Washington Post).
In 2016-17, Regeneron took over sponsorship of the Science Talent Search, but the change in sponsor has not changed the Magnet’s formula for success. Blair had nine semifinalists (societyforscience.org), again leading the nation, and two finalists, seniors Sambuddha Chattopadhyay and Rohan Dalvi (societyforscience.org), increasing the total to 46 finalists since the Magnet’s first class graduated in 1989. In January 2017, seniors presented their projects at the 25th annual Magnet Research Convention (@blairmagnet), continuing the tradition originally started by Ms. Russell in 1993. It seems likely that as long as there is a Blair Magnet, there will be Blair Magnet students finding success in the Science Talent Search.
See a list of Awards won by Blair Magnet students and teachers.