Two Palo Alto students compete today and Saturday as regional finalists in the Siemens Competition, a national contest in math, science and technology.
Seniors Andrew Liu of Gunn High School and Scott Zhuge of Palo Alto High School were selected to present their research today to judges at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
Liu works in a Stanford University bioinformatics lab, integrating and analyzing decades of data on transplant rejection to narrow down the most relevant among 171 biological pathways that can cause the body to reject transplanted organs.
Zhuge works with an astrophysics mentor at NASA Ames Research Center to measure the amount of neon, sulfur and hydrogen in the Orion Nebula. The quantities serve as benchmarks for "elemental abundances" in general in the universe, he said, enabling scientists to compare them with other data to improve their understanding of how elements are made.
Both students credit their Gunn and Paly science teachers, mentors at Stanford and NASA, and their parents -- all engineers -- with nurturing their success.
In Liu's case, they are Stanford postdoctoral researcher Purvesh Khatri, who works in the lab of Atul Butte, assistant professor of pediatrics and, by courtesy, computer science; and his parents, Shirley Zeng and Yajun Liu.
For Zhuge, they are NASA Ames research scientist Robert Rubin; and his parents, Tiffany Pan and James Zhuge.
"First of all, (my parents) encouraged me to start doing projects, but mainly they helped me learn that science is a lot about persistence," Liu said.
"In research, you face a lot of challenges and setbacks, and oftentimes you won't discover anything new, or things won't turn out the way you want them to.
"They helped me understand that being patient, persistent and recognizing that what you're doing is useful even if the results aren't spectacular, is important and helpful for the field."
Zhuge said working at NASA Ames has taught him about the challenges of working as a research scientist.
"It's definitely not like being in school," he said.
"In school the challenge is to learn material and they have a set-up curriculum all ready for you. A good teacher might set up experiments so you could discover the curriculum, but in general it is set.
"In research, the challenge is to learn this curriculum you don't know, and find out as much as you can with limited resources. At least in astrophysics, there are tons of stars, tons of things you could look at, but a limited amount of time, limited telescope time, limited manpower.
"It affects every field. For example, we'd like to measure all the neon and sulfur in the whole universe -- that would be great -- but it's clearly not possible.
"So you have to select the best candidates that represent the universe in general, and make do with what you have and what others have published before."
Liu, who began competing in science fairs when he was in seventh grade, moved to Palo Alto from the East Bay just before his freshman year at Gunn. Besides his computer science research, he is president of Gunn's Speech and Debate Team and editor of The Chariot, Gunn's student-produced cultural and political magazine.
Zhuge, a San Jose native, moved to Palo Alto in fourth grade and attended Duveneck Elementary School and Jordan Middle School. He has participated in a variety of activities, including speech and debate, but recently has focused most of his time on the NASA research project.