Girls Sweep Top Honors at Siemens Science Contest

Girls won top honors for the first time in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology, one of the nation’s most coveted student science awards, which were announced Monday at New York University.

Janelle Schlossberger and Amanda Marinoff, both 17 and seniors at Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School on Long Island, split the first prize — a $100,000 scholarship — in the team category for creating a molecule that helps block the reproduction of drug-resistant tuberculosis bacteria.

Isha Himani Jain, 16, a senior at Freedom High School in Bethlehem, Pa., placed first in the individual category for her studies of bone growth in zebra fish, whose tail fins grow in spurts, similar to the way children’s bones do. She will get a $100,000 scholarship.

The three girls’ victories is “wonderful news, but I can’t honestly say it’s shocking,” said Nancy H. Hopkins, a biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Hopkins helped start a national discussion about girls and science two years ago when she walked out of a talk by Harvard University’s president, Lawrence H. Summers ’75, after he suggested that innate differences between men and women might be one reason that fewer women than men succeed in math and science careers. Summers apologized during the ensuing furor; he announced his resignation as Harvard’s president 13 months later.

“Why do people think girls can’t do science?” Hopkins said Monday. “Where did this crazy idea ever come from?”

James Whaley, president of the Siemens Foundation, which oversees the competition for Siemens AG, a global electronics and engineering company, said the competition results send a great message to young women.

Alicia Darnell, 17, a senior at Pelham Memorial High School in Pelham, N.Y., won second place and a $50,000 scholarship in the individual category for research that identified genetic defects that could play a role in the development of Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The Siemens competition was first held in 1998 and is distinct from the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, which was founded in 1941 and is now known as the Intel Science Talent Search. Many high school students enter both.

This year, more than 1,600 students nationwide entered the Siemens competition. After several rounds of judging, 20 finalists were chosen to present their projects at NYU and to vie for scholarships ranging from $10,000 to $100,000. Eleven of the finalists were girls. It was the first year that girls outnumbered boys in the final round. Most of the finalists attend public school.

On Sunday, the students gave 12-minute presentations of their projects, filled with explanations about Herceptin resistance (when breast cancer patients with HER2-positive tumors do not respond to the drug Herceptin) and FtsZ inhibitors (experiments on a specific protein that could lead to a new treatment for drug-resistant tuberculosis).

One of the most popular was by three home-schooled girls from Pennsylvania and New Jersey — Caroline Lang, 16; Rebecca Ehrhardt, 15; and Naomi Collipp, 16 — who used a Power Point presentation to demonstrate their “Burgercam” monitoring system. It is designed to determine when E. coli bacteria in hamburgers have been safely eliminated by measuring the shrinkage of each patty when fully cooked.

Several hundreds of hamburgers later, the girls took home fifth place and $20,000 in scholarship money.

Caroline, Rebecca, and Naomi, called “the Hamburger Girls,” said they had been friends since they were toddlers and had stayed in touch through a group for home-schooled children.

“They were concerned it wasn’t sophisticated enough, but they wanted to try,” said Rebecca’s mother, Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt, a plasma physicist.