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Early Arrivals at the Cutting Edge

TIMES STAFF WRITER

What makes the mineral called Terlingua calcite luminescent is a mystery to scientists.

In his science project, Alhambra High School senior Matthew McCann, 17, didn’t quite figure it out, either. But his findings were impressive enough to put him at the cutting edge of research and make him one of 40 finalists announced Tuesday in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search.

“I knew I had a good project but I wasn’t sure if I would make it,” McCann said.

Earlier this month at the semifinalist stage, McCann had as company three other 17-year-old Alhambra High seniors: Alexander Chow, Lani Ren Kuramoto and Albert Hau Wing Lam.

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Principal Julie Hadden said her school emphasizes science courses, including an intensive biomedical program. She said most years Alhambra High places one or two students in Westinghouse’s top 300 list. This year’s four semifinalists were the most by any school west of the Mississippi.

McCann is the ninth student in the school’s history to make the top 40 list.

"[The recognition] is a tremendous source of pride. It brings a lot of positive feeling to the school,” Hadden said.

Joining McCann as finalists from Southern California are North Hollywood High School senior Kevin Shapiro, who turns 17 Friday, and 17-year-old Susan Jean Shaw from Villa Park High School in the city of Orange.

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Shapiro’s biology project involved analyzing the bdellovibrios bacteria while Shaw focused on physiology experiments with blindfolded subjects in which she determined how the ears’ outer parts aid in distinguishing what direction sounds are coming from.

The three other California students chosen from the field of nearly 1,900 contestants are from Palo Alto, Saratoga and Fresno.

The 55th annual contest is the oldest and most prestigious science competition open to high school seniors. John Armstrong, Westinghouse’s director of corporate programs, said some of the young scientists’ research is equivalent to that done by college graduate students. Five past contestants have become Nobel Prize winners.

McCann’s project started in his sophomore year. Having read about rocks since he was 4, he knew the luminescence of the mysterious calcite had puzzled scientists.

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He approached professors at Caltech in Pasadena and staff members of the Gemological Institute of America in Santa Monica, who agreed to help him with research and equipment.

“He was unusual in the kind of background he had in his science,” said Caltech mineralogy professor George Rossman. “He came with a clear sense of purpose.”

McCann’s research involved testing the elements of the Terlingua calcite, a mineral found near the town of Terlingua, Texas, and comparing the properties to other luminous minerals from around the world. Though he was not able to single out the element responsible for the calcite’s luminescence, he came up with a short list, an accomplishment that places him with an elite group of scientists that have studied the phenomenon.

“It’s still a project in progress,” Rossman said. “But he’s certainly on the cutting edge.”

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The findings of McCann and other scientists could improve imaging systems such as television and computer screens, Rossman said.

For McCann’s mother, Trudy Tournier, the finalist status is a sweet payoff after two years of driving her son to the research facilities. “It’s a recognition of his passion, rather than his obsession,” said Tournier, a third-grade teacher who often asks her son to discuss rocks with her classes.

“He brings [science] down to small children’s level,” she said.

The final competition will be March 6 in Washington, D.C., where the students will be interviewed by top scientists.

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“I’m real anxious,” McCann said. “I’m excited about meeting Nobel Prize winners.”


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