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They’ve Got Science on Their Brains : Three La Jolla High Students Are the State’s Only Finalists in the Westinghouse Scholarship Contest

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They’re young and chipper, scorchingly bright and intensely motivated. Franz Edward Boas, Irene Ann Chen and Elaine Wei-Yin Yu are California’s only three finalists in this year’s 54th annual Westinghouse Science Talent Search, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious high school science contest.

The three are from the high-achieving science program at La Jolla High, which marks the first time that all of the state’s Westinghouse finalists are from one school. What’s more, this year La Jolla High has more finalists than any school in the country.

Each of the three is 17 and will graduate in June with a lengthy resume of achievements and a grade-point average that exceeds straight A because of advanced and university-level classes. All three have been accepted to Harvard.

For the contest, Franz continued his research into how to make computers accept more information and do more calculations. Last summer he spent six weeks in a program sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he worked alongside Harvard researchers.

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“It’s very exciting to be the first person to see or discover something,” he says. “Rather than just reading about what other people have done, it’s great to actually do the research yourself.”

Franz is the great-great-grandson of the late Franz Boas, a leading American anthropologist. His mother works in exporting; his father is a civilian management employee of the Navy.

With all his options, Franz is unsure what he wants to do in life, except that it will be something in science. For fun he’s been reading Roger Penrose’s “Shadows of the Mind: On Consciousness, Computations and the New Physics of the Mind.”

“He has an interesting theory on what causes consciousness,” Franz says.

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Elaine’s project for Westinghouse involved exploration of how to suppress inflammation in the body, a key issue in the treatment of disease.

She serves as a student representative on the state Board of Education, had an internship last summer with the Congressional Hunger Caucus in Washington, and plays tennis and badminton. She is unsure whether she wants a career in public policy or research.

“I know it sounds corny, but I want to make a difference in the world, to change people’s lives,” she says. “The two best ways are science and government.”

Her mother is a professor of pediatrics at UC San Diego, her father a researcher in microbiology at the Scripps Institutions of Science and Medicine. A brother is in medical school in San Francisco.

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She may spend the summer in St. Petersburg, Russia, with Project Smile, a group of American doctors and surgeons helping children.

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Irene, an accomplished pianist and dedicated “Star Trek” watcher, has done research on two kinds of genes and how they may spread cancer by invading cells.

She plans to study genetics, chemistry and microbiology, and then decide what kind of career to have. Her father is a business professor at San Diego State University, her mother a homemaker.

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If being acclaimed as one of the top science students in the country has gone to her head, she does not show it.

“For all the people I’m ahead of, there are lots of people ahead of me ,” she says. “The amount of knowledge you should have, and the amount that is out there, is really incredible.”

She recently saw Kary Mullis, the Nobel laureate in chemistry from La Jolla, at the supermarket and summoned up courage to ask for his autograph. She takes her attitude toward prizes from a book by physics laureate Richard Feynman.

“He has it right,” she says. “Prizes are nice, but it’s the actual discoveries, not the rewards, that are important.”

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The three will go to Washington in March to compete with 37 other finalists from 17 states for 10 scholarships ranging from $10,000 to $40,000. Former Westinghouse finalists have gone on to win a number of international science contests and five Nobel Prizes.

No one familiar with high school science programs--or with the La Jolla three--is surprised by their success. La Jolla High regularly produces winners at regional and state science contests and has had previous Westinghouse finalists.

Many of the school’s top science students are sons and daughters of university professors, particularly from nearby UCSD. Many have been taking classes there, even serving as teaching assistants, since they were high school freshmen.

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“We really don’t help these kids all that much in the science fairs,” Joe Baron, a chemistry teacher and the chairman of the science department at La Jolla High, said Friday morning while gathering his squad for the upcoming Science Olympiad, yet another national contest.

“Most of these students are far beyond us,” he said. “What we do is create an atmosphere that says, ‘It’s OK to be smart, it’s OK to excel in science and mathematics.’ ”


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