Four Gunn seniors semi-finalists in Intel contest

Local students among 300 chosen nationwide for research projects

"You guys are rock stars," Gunn High School Principal Katya Villalobos proclaimed Wednesday to four Gunn seniors just named among 300 semi-finalists nationwide in the Intel Science Talent Search.

In a brief celebration during Gunn's lunch break the winners, Youyang Gu, Audrey Ho, Andrew Liu and Brian Zhang, cheerfully posed for photos by proud parents, Palo Alto school district officials and press, including a Chinese-language daily.

On Jan. 26, Intel will narrow the pool of 300 semi-finalists to 40 finalists, who will present their projects to judges in Washington, D.C., in March. On Wednesday, local Intel representatives presented $1,000 checks to Gu, Ho, Liu and Zhang.

Gu, who came to Gunn as a sophomore from a high school in Urbana, Ill., worked in chemical engineering during a 2010 summer internship at Texas Tech University, researching ways to use the outer shell of pollen grains as an oral drug encapsulator.

"It's not used that way yet, but we found some interesting properties that allows it to withstand the acidic conditions of the stomach," Gu said. He said his mentor on the project, Harvinder Gill of Texas Tech University, continues the research.

Gu, who plans to pursue chemical engineering in college, is president of Gunn's Future Business Leaders of America and also is involved in math and environmental activities at Gunn.

Ho worked on a computational chemistry project, testing ways to find a "more energetically optimal process" to synthesize the spherical carbon molecule fullerene.

She said she got the idea for the project from an 11th grade science assignment, and pursued it independently at home.

"It was theoretical, so I needed only stuff you could buy or download -- it didn't require equipment, a Bunsen burner, none of that.

"There were a lot of computer languages, like Unix, I had to understand, and my dad helped me with that. For everything else I just looked at manuals -- yeah, it was hard," she said.

A lifelong Palo Altan, Ho went to Nixon and Hoover elementary schools and Terman Middle School. Before immersing herself in computational chemistry, she played violin in the California Youth Symphony, played badminton and has been involved in math and chemistry competitions.

She hopes to double major in chemistry and music.

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.

He moved to Palo Alto from the East Bay just before his freshman year at Gunn.

"My parents encouraged me to start doing projects, but mainly they helped me learn that science is a lot about persistence," he 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."

Besides computer-science research, Liu is president of Gunn's speech and debate team and editor of The Chariot, Gunn's student-produced cultural and political magazine.

Zhang, who began kindergarten at Nixon School when his family moved to Stanford, worked last summer on a laser-cooling project with Harvard Professor Eugene Demler.

"When standard atoms are cooled you get some unique physical phenomena and it can give rise to new states of matter -- different ways of organizing atoms and packing atoms together," Zhang said.

"The new material physicists are working on have the potential to improve the energy crisis" by reducing resistance in energy transmission to allow for maximum efficiency.

Zhang has been a member of Gunn's water polo and tennis teams throughout high school, is co-president of Gunn's math organization and also goes weekly to Terman to work on math with students there.

"I enjoy seeing that I can make an impact on their lives, and help them appreciate science from a young age," he said.

He is still "not entirely sure" about a college major, but is considering physics and math.

Also on hand for Wednesday's lunchtime celebration were Gunn math teachers Dave Deggeller and Peter Herreshoff, physics teacher Bill Dunbar and chemistry teacher Heather Mellows.

In addition to Gu, Ho, Liu and Zhang, 22 other Bay Area high school seniors were named Intel semi-finalists Wednesday, including Guillaume Delepine of Bellarmine College Prep.

The Harker School in San Jose was the first California school in the history of the 69-year-old competition to produce seven semi-finalists. Statewide, California's 41 semi-finalists represent the largest number from one state since the competition began.

More than 1,700 high school seniors entered the competition, Intel said.

Last year, Palo Alto had one semi-finalist in the Intel contest -- Lynnelle Ye of Palo Alto High School.

Ye advanced to the Intel finals and ultimately placed fourth in the nation with her game theory project, mathematically proving some new facts about strategies for the game Graph Chomp.

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Like this comment
Posted by Paula Sandas
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 13, 2011 at 11:14 am

Wow! Congratulations to these 4 motivated, amazing students!

Like this comment
Posted by Me Too
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 13, 2011 at 11:16 am

Wow, that's fantastic. Nice going!

Like this comment
Posted by Willows parent
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 13, 2011 at 11:16 am

But haven't these kids heard that achievement is an illusion?

Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jan 13, 2011 at 11:18 am

Congratulations to these students, a great accomplishment and worthy of being put alongside winning a state championship in sport.

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Once again, congratulations to these young people and I wish them success in their future endeavors and trust that they will become leaders in Silicon Valley in the not so distant future.

Like this comment
Posted by Gunn Grad
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jan 13, 2011 at 12:07 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by Harker Parent in PA
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 13, 2011 at 12:12 pm

Just to be technically correct... Harker had 7 semi-finalists. Wow!!!

Like this comment
Posted by PA Mom
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jan 13, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Congratulations to these hard-working young people. So good to hear you say that hard work and persistence pay off. Well done!

Like this comment
Posted by congratulations!
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 13, 2011 at 1:59 pm

Congratulations, kids!

I'm always happy to see academic news in the local papers instead of just sports.

Like this comment
Posted by Curious
a resident of another community
on Jan 13, 2011 at 5:50 pm

Is Harker "better" than Gunn? (And are its students more stressed?)

Like this comment
Posted by Public School Supporter
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jan 13, 2011 at 6:28 pm

The reason Harker has 7 semifinalists is because it designates an entire class for independent research and a special internship search program (called Harker Research Program), where it pairs interested students with professors. Therefore, it's no surprise that they have the most number of semifinalists in California. Also, it has a $35,372/year tuition.

Like this comment
Posted by gunnalumni
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jan 13, 2011 at 11:26 pm

This is great and I would like to congratulate the students for this honor. However I feel like gunn is becoming one dimensional and leading to its problems. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]
I believe Gunn has lost touch with the social pleasures that come with being a high school student. Part of being a high school student is playing a sport, getting a role in the school drama, ect. Instead of going to a football game on a Friday night to relax and loose some steam, most kids at gunn study for their sats all night so they can beat their friends 2100. Gunn needs to get its act together and emphasize there is more to a high school then being 100th or whatever number it is now in the country. Gunn will always be great academically with the community that surrounds it and its teachers. I just think it's about time we throw some other things in the picture to define this fine school. ,

Like this comment
Posted by person
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jan 14, 2011 at 12:21 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by Congratulations
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jan 14, 2011 at 3:55 am

We have Paly we have Gunn. We have sports we have science. That's our great community. Congratulations, kids!
If somebody thinks he will get these awards by locking inside the house, please do it and we will see you next year. Good luck!

Like this comment
Posted by Another one
a resident of another community
on Jan 14, 2011 at 7:27 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 14, 2011 at 9:32 am

Gunn Alum and others -

This is an amazing achievement by some great students, be happy for them.

As far as the studying on Friday nights (and breaks, etc.) much of that is parent drive (or instilled by the parents when the students are younger), not by the school. I can't imagine a teacher telling a student to skip the football game/dance/other school event to stay home and study for their SAT's

Like this comment
Posted by Jeffrey N
a resident of another community
on Jan 14, 2011 at 12:27 pm

I wanted to give my congratulations to all who participated in the Intel contest. While we can all easily offer congratulations to the semi-finalists announced here, I think everyone who participated in this extracurricular (eg, non-required) event should feel a sense of accomplishment just for participating.

It is always fun to win a "title", and sometimes people get wrapped up in those pursuits, but doing something you enjoy doing is a reward in and of itself. To be able to find an organization where you can build community with like minded folks is great, and thanks for Intel for creating this structured program.

Most schools strive to help students develop into well-rounded individuals, but would be lacking if they did not help students excel in their individual niches. The myriad of extracurricular (as in not core academic) activities are there to help student find their direction. Budding journalists or writers from newspaper and magazine clubs... actors, performers, musicians, production technicians, and artists with the arts... language, cultural experiences, exchange students, and food with transnational / foreign language programs... and nowadays so much more: Model UN, JSA, Math Club, GSA, JCL, JETS, FIRST/Robotics, ACM, and more.

I hope we can all embrace the diversity of our interests and realize that different people find joy in different activities. Some pursue sports, others drama and music; many get lost in their computers (games, programming, social networking), and others still in more traditionally academic fields.

I don’t think many famous “thinkers” of our time made their revolutionary discoveries because:
(1) My parents made me stay home and study, (2) I have to earn a living to provide the necessities to sustain life, or (3) I don’t like something so I’m going to do it ad nauseam and then some. I think the Mozarts, Einsteins, Van Goghs, Newtons, Moores, Boyles & Smiths, Geims & Novoselovs found pleasure in their accomplishments. Let’s celebrate the accomplishments and achievements of our future.

Like this comment
Posted by sigh
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 14, 2011 at 3:24 pm

"We have Paly we have Gunn. We have sports we have science. That's our great community. Congratulations, kids!"

Links from the last year...
Web Link
Web Link
Web Link
Web Link

Trying to stereotype the two schools can be problematic.

Like this comment
Posted by alum gunn mom
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jan 14, 2011 at 4:04 pm

To Harker Parent:
So what?! You want to compare? How many Harker students got accepted to Stanford last year compared to Gunn? Heck of a lot more from Gunn.
You are 100k+ in the hole and your kid can have the same or better education at Gunn or Paly.

My kid graduated Gunn last year. (Now at UC Berkeley). My kid loved History, English. Did sports outside and had lots of varied friends who went to colleges (or not)all over. Stop stereotyping Gunn and Paly. It's so annoying and so cliched.

Like this comment
Posted by anon
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 14, 2011 at 8:58 pm

Amazing! Congratulations and good luck with the finals. Curious how high school students get these incredible internships that seem more suited to college level students. I am not knocking what these students have accomplished, but just trying to get some insight into the world of high-powered high school internships. I am sure many doors open when you are a top student, but do you also to be "connected" to get hired for internships at prestigious universities and labs? Thank you.

Like this comment
Posted by PAResident
a resident of Southgate
on Jan 15, 2011 at 8:19 am

When's the parade? Or is that just for Paly. Or just for sports?

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 16, 2011 at 10:58 am

@ anon, the parental planning starts yrs before.

Like this comment
Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 16, 2011 at 11:32 am

From what I heard, the parade was planned by the Paly students and their parents. If the Gunn students want a parade for their accomplishments, they should go for it.

I think one of the reasons for the internships is our close physical proximity to Stanford and other top companies, and the fact that many of the Stanford faculty students attend PAUSD.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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