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High school student wins big at Intel science fair with bugs
Central News Agency
2009-05-17 09:55 PM
(Photo 114) by Deborah Kuo CNA staff writer A 16-year-old high school student from Taiwan has won a major prize at this year's Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF) for her groundbreaking study of microbes that can break down Styrofoam.

Tseng, a student at National Taichung Girl's Senior High School in central Taiwan, won the top prize in the microbiology category of the Intel ISEF, which is billed as the world's largest pre-college science competition.

Tseng's presentation was her research on bacteria found in the digestive ducts of live mealworm beetles that break down polystyrene (EPS) foam, more commonly known as Styrofoam.

The disposal of Styrofoam has long been a challenge worldwide because it is known to be non-biodegradable.

Tseng won a US$5,000 Intel scholarship and a laptop computer powered by the Intel Core Duo processor for her study, titled "A Styrofoam-Decomposing Bacterium from Mealworms." In addition to winning the top prize in the microbiology category, she was also awarded cash prizes by four other sponsors of the fair, racking up more than US$10,000 in prize money.

This made her the biggest winner on the 11-member Taiwan team at the 2009 Intel ISEF, which drew the participation of 1,563 students from 56 countries.

Six other students from Taiwan also won prizes and awards at the fair, which was held May 10-16 in Reno, Nevada in the United States.

Tseng, whose aptitude for scientific research became apparent when was in junior high school, will also be offered NT$200,000 (US$6,045) by Taiwan's Ministry of Education (MOE).

The MOE usually gives this amount to students who win honors at international fairs and competitions and also allows them to waive the national university entrance exam.

In all, more than 500 Intel ISEF competitors received scholarships and prizes this year in the 19 categories of the fair.

"These winners -- and indeed, all 1,500 Intel ISEF participants -- represent some of the most innovative thinking around the world, " said Intel Chairman Craig Barrett.

"Intel ISEF is part of our company's commitment to foster young innovators like these who will one day transform the world in ways we can hardly imagine. I want to congratulate them on their very meaningful scientific accomplishments, " Barrett said at the awards presentation ceremony.

Tseng was one of the 11 students selected in February by the National Taiwan Science Education Center in Taipei City to represent Taiwan at the Intel ISEF 2009.

Since February, Tseng had been traveling to Taipei each week to meet with a tutor and advisor, Lin Jung-yaw, a scholar at Taiwan's top research institute Academia Sinica and a professor with National Taiwan University's Graduate Institute of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

According to her mother, Tseng broke down in tears several times, as she was being pushed by her professors. Watching her daughter cry, Tseng's mother asked her whether she wanted to continue with the painstaking research project.

But Tseng dried her tears and said, "I will go on, " her mother related.

In February, Teng's research on the ability of the bacteria in the digestive systems of live mealworm beetles to break down Styrofoam won third place in a nationwide science competition sponsored by the National Taiwan Science Education Center. It is thought that she failed to place higher in that competition because she did not present her findings very well in English.

Since there were no first or second place winners in the microbiology category of the local competition, the center selected Tseng as one of 11 Taiwanese students to undergo intensive training in preparation for the 2009 Intel fair.

Speaking at the local prize-giving ceremony in February, Tseng said she became curious after she saw mealworm beetles nibbling on Styrofoam products at a junior high school science exhibition.

She said she spent more than one year researching mealworms, "killing" about 1,000 of the adult beetles in her experiments before discovering a certain type of "red bacteria" in their digestive tracts that can decompose Styrofoam.

She said her findings were repeatedly confirmed, but she needed further study to determine the conditions under which the "red bacteria" could most effectively break down EPS foam.

She was assisted in her mealworm research by Lin and two other professors from National Tsinghua University..

However, according to her mother, most of Tseng's research was done with Wen Fu-hsien, an associate professor at National Chung Hsing University's Department of Life Sciences.

Known to be determined and single-minded, Tseng at one point spent three consecutive months working at Wen's lab and did not even attend classes at her high school, her mother said.

Tseng's interest in scientific research was apparent since she was in junior high school, and after she entered senior high school she gave so much time to her lab work and spent so little time in her regular classes that her other teachers rarely saw her, her mother said.

Because she missed her regular classes so often and for such long periods, Tseng tried to keep abreast of her work by contacting her friends via Internet chat and she prepared for her examinations by borrowing notes from them, according to her mother.

Director of academic affairs of the National Taichung Girl's Senior High School said that while Tseng "is talented and a source of pride for the school, she is also a headache." According to Tseng's father, a nephrologist at a hospital in Beigang, central Taiwan, she once skipped a grade, from fifth grade in elementary school to the first year of junior high school.

"We allowed her to skip, not to show off, but simply because we wanted her to have more time to explore what she was interested in, " Tseng's father said.

Tseng and rest of the Taiwan delegation to the Intel ISEF are expected to return to Taiwan May 18.

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