"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.