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January 13, 2006

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, January 13, 2006

Junior Einstein Junior Einstein (January 13, 2006)

Paly senior honored for scientific research

by Alexandria Rocha

Jonathan Steinman's classmates learned something new about their friend this week: He can separate DNA.

Steinman, a Palo Alto High School senior, found himself the center of attention Wednesday when officials announced he's a semifinalist in a prestigious 65-year-old national math and science competition known as the "junior Nobel Prize."

A crowd of media personnel, a school district associate superintendent, Steinman's mom and a representative from the Intel Science Talent Search -- armed with balloons and a large cardboard $1,000 check -- marched into a roomful of bewildered students at seventh period.

Intel's Tami Casey announced that Steinman is one of nine semifinalists from the Bay Area. He is one of 23 in California, and one of 300 in the country.

"People who have won this have gone on to invent microprocessors, medical devices that have saved lives," Casey said. "You have arrived. You are on your way to being one of America's great scientists."

A student relaxing on a couch whispered to a friend, "I knew he was good. I didn't know he was that good."

Joining Casey in the middle of the room, Steinman remained as composed as a teenager who is suddenly $1,000 richer could be.

"I didn't know they actually gave really big checks," the 17-year-old said, grinning.

Steinman's report, titled "Electrophoresis in Nanochannels: A Novel Method for Rapid, High Resolution Separation of DNA," stemmed from two summers he interned at Stanford University's Center for Clinical Immunology.

This past summer, Steinman performed experiments and gathered data in the center under a mentor, Sumita Pennathur, a mechanical engineering Ph.D. student. Their work focused on a method to refine and automate the separation of DNA to make its study less costly and labor intensive.

Steinman's direct supervisor at Stanford, P.J. Utz, an associate professor of medicine, suggested the senior submit the research to the science talent search. It took 80 to 90 hours in September and October to put the report together.

"I think one of the best things you can do is become an expert in something and then explain it to people," Steinman said, still holding balloons and posing for photos outside of class. "I became a little bit of an expert in nanochannels and I shared it with people, and this is what I got."

The Science Talent Search was created by Science Service in 1942, a nonprofit organization focused on science publications and educational programs. Intel took over for Westinghouse as the search's sponsor nine years ago.

Since its inception, the competition has honored more than 2,500 finalists with awards and scholarships, and many of them hold some of the world's most coveted science and math honors, including six Nobel Prizes, three National Medals of Science, and 10 MacArthur Foundation Fellowships.

Each year, about 1,600 high-school seniors submit research projects that cover all disciplines of math and science, including biology, chemistry, engineering, physics, and social science. The entries are reviewed by top scientists in each particular field and judged on individual research ability, scientific originality and creative thinking.

Steinman's teachers say he has a gift in those areas.

"Jonathan is a questioner. He questions and he worries," said Katherine Lawrence, the instructional supervisor for Paly's science department who was also Steinman's advanced-placement chemistry teacher.

Contest entries also require a questionnaire that digs into the students' lives and personalities. In one question, Steinman names Donald Barbieri as the most influential person in his life.

Barbieri, Steinman wrote, "is a man for whom science is far from an abstract concept." He "owns a shoe shop near track 12 of Penn Station in New York, and fights courageously against his debilitating disease just to get through each day."

Barbieri, a friend of Steinman's father, is battling multiple sclerosis and has remained devoted to finding a cure.

"If Don has the strength to follow science despite the ravages of his disease, then surely it is worth pursuing," the senior wrote.

After science, journalism is another of Steinman's passions. He interned at the Palo Alto Weekly in the summer of 2004 and wrote several editorial columns.

On Jan. 25, Intel will announce 40 finalists, each of whom will receive an all-expense paid trip to Washington, D.C. to compete in a week-long challenge for scholarships totaling more than $500,000. The top prize is a $100,000 college scholarship.

There will be some stiff competition for a finalist slot. Jason Gao, a student at Mission San Jose High School in Fremont, submitted a report entitled "The Effects of Enzyme Addition on Anaerobic Digestion and the Time-Growth Model for Biogas Production." Another local student, Kate Brown, who attends San Jose's Presentation High School, entered her project, "Urea Uptake in a Hydroponic System for Growing Nasturtium officianalis."

Steinman is keeping it all in perspective.

"Science is always more interesting when you get some of it right and more of it wrong so you can ask more questions," he said. Staff writer Alexandria Rocha can be e-mailed at

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