Israeli 'brainchildren' forge new paths

High school science projects impressed the judges at Intel's ninth annual Young Scientist Contest.

science prize 88.298 (photo credit: Sasson Tiram)
science prize 88.298
(photo credit: Sasson Tiram)
While their peers were in shopping malls, pubs, discos and cinemas, 60 senior high-school pupils from around the country spent the past year or more in labs and libraries, preparing to compete in Intel-Israel's Ninth Annual Young Scientist Contest. The results were 40 innovative projects in the life, natural and social sciences, mathematics, environmental and computer science and history, some of which sparked the interest of professional scientists and commercial companies. The young scientists met the judges to explain and defend their work at Jerusalem's Bloomfield Science Museum, where a three-day "camp" was held to prepare them for the event and provide an encounter with previous participants. The top winners created a computer vision system that can detect the movement of an intruder, track him and calculate his location in three dimensions; studied conceptual delusions as a research tool for schizophrenia; developed a more reliable technique to restore fertility to women who undergo chemotherapy; examined a new drug for Type II diabetes; built a computer program that completes sentences using an algorithm that "learns" and speeds up typing; reliably determined the age of water in underground aquifers; and examined a time-worn logic puzzle in math. "We are speaking about a nucleus of excellence," says Prof. Hanoch Gutfreund, a leading physicist and former president of The Hebrew University who chaired the 12-member judges' panel for the eighth time. "It's hard to say what this nucleus means for the broad spectrum of Israeli teenagers, as the contestants are an elite, but the competition on Israel's National Science Day - Albert Einstein's birthday - creates a lot of motivation. It also bring science to the public eye once a year - although I think the event was somewhat overshadowed this year by the election campaign. Perhaps we should prepare for the 10th contest next year by producing a documentary about it. But the fact that the winners are announced in a Beit Hanassi ceremony and receive their prizes from the President of Israel makes it the country's most significant National Science Day event." Every year, notes Gutfreund, "we see some very good projects, and some outstanding ones." They were chosen from among 90 science projects around the country. It's difficult to choose the best, he notes, but the judges look for special added value. "We're on the lookout for excellence in innovation and independent achievement, even though all the pupils work with a teacher or scientist who is their adviser. It's difficult to know how much influence the advisers had - as we don't have any contact with them." Sometimes the ideas are suggested by the advisers, but sometimes the idea is entirely theirs. "We think we can identify the pupil's role, as at least one member of the judges' panel reads each full project report, and two teams interview them for about a quarter of an hour." The judges usually have experts in the relevant fields, but sometimes - as this year with mathematics - they consulted Hebrew University professors to determine whether the project really provided a fresh perspective. Intel-Israel invested $80,000 in this year's contest, awarding NIS 10,000, NIS 7,500 and NIS 5,000 for the top three prizes (some of them to two pupils each) in the form of scholarships. THE NIS 10,000 scholarship was won by 18-year-old former Jerusalem high school pupil and now Israel Defense Forces soldier Raphael Ouzan, who immigrated with his family from France only three years ago - not knowing any Hebrew. Today he speaks not only French but fluent Hebrew and English. His development of a system to detect the movement of an intruder, track him and calculate his location in three dimensions was cited as a "significant development in the field of computerized vision that makes possible many applications." Ouzan, a graduate of Boys Town yeshiva high school, demonstrated his project in an interactive computer display on the wall rather than a printed poster like his competitors, because it was so complex. The smart system, he explains in an interview with The Jerusalem Post, can be used to develop more autonomous robots and automatically aimed weapons, and can follow movement on the battlefield or in other security applications. Comprised of two Internet cameras positioned at the distance of the two eyes in a human head, it is directed by video. The system discovers the intruder by his movement and tracks him in real time. In addition, a robot operates in coordination with the cameras, projecting laser light that follows the suspect's movements. Ouzan, whose father is a cardiologist at the Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem and whose mother is a history researcher at Tel Aviv University, has three siblings. "We didn't come because of anti-Semitism in France, but because of our Zionistic feelings," said the first-prize winner, who was the first Boys Town pupil in the contest. "I've been working for years on developing computer programs and technology. I decided to focus for the project on computer vision, which is a very young field. Only recently," he says, "have there been computers with enough power to work on this." Unlike other contestants who got their ideas from their advisers, Ouzan dreamed up the computer vision project and worked on it under the supervision of teacher Shmuel Uziel, who teaches a course that combines technology, mathematics, computers, robotics and physics. "There are lots of applications for my research. I showed that computerized vision requires an understanding of how the human brain works, and I needed to devise an algorithm to make it work. It has many applications not just for the military and security, but also as an autonomous tool for measurement in industry." It can also be adapted to medicine, with the robot autonomously preparing artificial joint implantation, taking error-free measurements. As he applied at a different stage of his work to a different contest, some companies have already contacted him. But Ouzan wants to continue his studies, perhaps at the Technion Institute in Haifa, before he turns his ideas into commercial applications. The level of the competition and the competence and expertise of the judges, he says, was amazing. "I was very proud to be there. I felt the judges who interviewed me had an amazing amount of knowledge about my field. Getting the prize from President Moshe Katsav at Beit Hanassi I felt was proof that new immigrants like me can succeed." The second prize was awarded to two pupils at the Jerusalem Academy of Sciences and the Arts who worked on completely separate projects. Esther Postalnik studied conceptual delusions as a research tool for schizophrenia, while Na'ama Lemberg devoted her time to developing a reliable technique to restore fertility in women who undergo chemotherapy by transplanting unharmed ovarian tissue back into their bodies. She found that inserting the tissue into an intentionally caused wound that develops new blood vessels by angiogenesis and adding the antioxidant vitamin E increases the chances of the tissue being accepted. Lemberg, who lives in Kfar Vradim in the Galilee when she is not in her Jerusalem dormitory, is the daughter of an engineer and a draftswoman. She began her project at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, where she participated in a summer science program. "Several ideas were suggested, and I decided to work on the ovary project. I've always loved biology, but I didn't know much about chemotherapy and the effect it can have on female fertility." As chemotherapy drugs are toxic, especially to dividing tissue such as egg follicles, they can kill them off and make women infertile. If ovarian tissue is removed and them reimplanted, it releases free radicals which damage the follicles. "So we wanted to solve this problem by protecting the follicles from the free radicals. We found that if the ovarian tissue is implanted through a wound, angiogenesis takes place. Injecting the tissue with vitamin E fights the free radicals because it is an antioxidant." All this work, of course, was carried out on rodents. "It received permission from the committee on animal experimentation, and the implantation was performed by a veterinarian," Lemberg explains. "Many times in research labs, there is no justification for animal experiments, but in ours there definitely was because of the potential of helping people. We used magnetic resonance imaging to identify blood vessels in the ovary and count the follicles in rat ovaries transplanted into hairless mice. They are very tiny things, only a millimeter or two, and the follicles are even tinier, only a few microns. We watched them grow over a period of three days after the vitamin E treatment. We had very nice results, with 32% higher survival rates of the follicles with our method compared to a control group." The conclusions cannot immediately be applied to humans, of course. "Research has to continue, and at the Weizmann Institute they are doing exactly that. I'm going into the army, but I don't know exactly what yet. I hope to continue doing scientific research as an adult, when I am discharged." The third prize was shared by Bruria Mundri of Jerusalem's Gymnasia and Yonatan Gutel of the Hartman Yeshiva for their examination of a new drug for Type II diabetes; Matan Peled of the Aleh Science High School in Lod for building a computer program that completes sentences using an algorithm that "learns" and speeds up typing; Doron Levin of the Amit Comprehensive High School in Beersheba who examined a logic puzzle in mathematics; and Shifa'a Mahamed, a pupil at the Um el Fahm Comprehensive High School who studied how to determine the age of water in underground aquifers. The 18-year-old, who keeps her hair strictly covered because of Islamic observance, was encouraged by her father (a teacher of theater and communications) and mother (a housewife who has four other children) to pursue science. "I've always loved physics. The technique to determine the age of water in aquifers was physical, but connected to the environment. It was the idea of my school counsellor, Muhammed Yusuf Gabarin-Abu Samach and my adviser, Yisrael Carmi. I took water samples at Beit Dagan, and the final spectrometry results were carried out in the US, because even the Weizmann Institute lacked the special equipment needed." Determining the age of underground water is important for knowing how fast it flows and calculate how much of it can be used. If the water is old, it will be more polluted. Natural radioactivity supplies the basis for estimating the age of aquifer water. One technique is based on carbon-14 dating. The age calculation requires a very exact assessment of the original amount of c-14. "We investigated the factors that affect the amount of initial c-14 by studying the unsaturated layer in the ground." Now that she is about to graduate from high school, Mahamed has applied to study at the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University and the Technion, and she will use her scholarship money towards that end. According to the Bloomfield Museum, whose director is Maya Halevy and whose information director is Dea Brockman, the top winners will represent Israel in the international Intel competition in May, where over 1,000 teenagers will compete, and in the European Union's young scientist competition in September, where they will be among 200 contestants. The museum has established a Young Scientists Club comprising participants in previous contests. Asked whether any have pursued a science career, Brockman says they are all still young. It's been only nine years, and most go to military service after high school. But Eran Elhayak, who took a top prize in the first competition for biological control of pests that infest potatoes, has established several startups. He recently left for the US to do his doctorate. "The aim of the club is to promote excellence in science and technology among young people, and to create a group in which they don't feel like oddballs. It's amazing how well the contestants - new ones and veterans - get along in camp, even though they come from such different backgrounds - Jews and Arabs, secular and religious, sabras and new immigrants and residents of big cities and development towns." Although the average scores of Israeli teenagers in comparative world science exams have been relatively low in recent years, the Israelis who participated in the Intel-Israel Young Scientists Contest have often excelled. Last year, says Brockman, "three went to the Intel world competition in Phoenix, and two returned with a third prize in engineering and technology, while others won third prize in a US mathematics competition. One participant in a competition in Germany won a prize for a project in molecular biology. We're proud of them all."