The technology gender gap may be widening, but you wouldn’t know it from the 58th Annual Intel Science Talent Search, where a 14-year-old female student topped a winning list that included some of the country’s most tech-savvy high school students.

Science Service and Intel Corp. held an awards ceremony in Washington, D.C. last month to announce the winners of the contest, which had until last year been sponsored by Westinghouse Electric Co. This year’s ceremony recognized its youngest ever first-place recipient.

Taking top honors was 14-year-old Natalia Toro of Fairview High School in Boulder, Colo., who will receive a $50,000 scholarship for her winning physics project. In addition to being the youngest winner in the 58 years of the award, Toro also became the second female student in the last 6 years to receive top honors.

The second-place finalist was David Moore, an 18-year-old senior at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md. Moore will receive a $40,000 scholarship for his physics-oriented project. Moore serves as the network/system administrator at his high school.

Coming in third was another high school tech-whiz, 17-year-old Keith Winstein, a senior at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA) in Aurora. Winstein won a $30,000 scholarship for a computer science project titled, “Lexical Steganography Through Adaptive Modulation of the Word Choice Hash.” His research focused on steganography, or techniques for embedding information in computerized data without making any perceptible change to the original material.

Winstein is the co-founder of the IMSA Advanced Computer Association and is a member of the American Computer Science League. He plans to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) next fall.

“These students represent the brightest young scientists in the country,” said Intel President and CEO Craig Barrett. “Our challenge and goal for the Intel Science Talent Search is to reward and recognize students who excel and achieve, to support teachers who go the extra mile to excite and involve their students, and to help parents stay involved in their children’s education.”

Students from all over the world submit research projects each year to the talent search. The top 300 entries this year were selected as semifinalists in January. Semifinalists earn recommendations for college acceptance and financial aid from Intel and Science Service.

The semifinalists were then pared down to a group of 40 finalists, who vied for a total of $330,000 in scholarship money. Finalists were judged on their individual research reports for their research ability, scientific originality, and creative thinking. All Intel Science Talent Search finalists were reviewed and judged by top scientists from a variety of disciplines.

The judges’ panel was led by chair J. Richard Gott, professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University. Gott placed second in the talent search in 1965.

“The Intel Science Talent Search is about finding better ways to do things, continuously asking why and, in the process, moving out the frontiers of knowledge,” remarked Dudley Herschbach, chairman of the board of Science Service and a Nobel laureate in chemistry. “Within these 40 young scientists lies the next great inventions and scientific achievements that will influence us in the 21st century.”

Promising future

Indeed, participation in the Science Talent Search has often served as a precursor to impressive accomplishments in the field of science.

Statistics show that some 95 percent of all finalists in the history of the contest have gone on to pursue a branch of science as their major field of study, while more than 70 percent have earned doctorate degrees.

Five former finalists have won Nobel Prizes and two have earned Fields Medals, the highest honor for achievements in mathematics. Other honors include Sloan Research Fellowships and MacArthur Foundation Fellowships. Many finalists have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences or the National Academy of Engineering.

Intel assumed sponsorship of the contest in 1998 after years of its being known as the Westinghouse Award. Intel said it is working closely with Science Service–the administrator of the contest since its inception–to increase the number of high school students and teachers involved and to increase public awareness of the program.

Intel said it also wants to infuse computer and internet technology into the program as it moves into the 21st century.

Intel Corp.

Science Service