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Fungi study harvests Westinghouse prize.

The outcome of this year's Westinghouse Science Talent Search would have made Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus smile.

That's because first-place winner Elizabeth Michele Pine, 17, following in the footsteps of the 18th-century taxonomist, tackled the classification of a group of fungi called false truffles. Last week, Pine, of Chicago, received a $40,000 college scholarship for this research, part of a $205,000 pot awarded to 40 young scientists.

Though often identified by the stem and cap that poke out of the ground, mushrooms and other fungi can fool even experts. "[Some] can look very similar; yet they are no more closely related than a skunk is to a sea otter," Pine explains. A student at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, Pine studied whether the shape of microscopic spores would prove a better indicator of kinship among these plants. She compared DNA from false truffles with DNA from Laccaria mushrooms, which produce similar spores. Her results indicate that taxonomists should probably reclassify false truffLes as belonging to the Laccaria genus. Understanding these relationships is a necessary first step to studying and using fungi, Pine adds.

The judges awarded a second-place, 30,000 scholarship to Xanthi M. Merlo, a 17-year-old senior f rom Washington Park H.S. in Racine, Wis., for her work examining the role of a recently discovered blood protein in clotting. Sixteen-year-old Lenhard Lee Ng from Chapel Hill (N.C.) H.S. took third, earning a $20,000 award for a mathematics project.

Three students received $15,000 scholarships. Fourth-place winner Constance Lee Chen, 17, of La Jolla (Calif.) H.S. studied two genes important in the development of cancer. For his fifth-place project, Ryan David Egeland, 18, of Wayzata Senior H.S. in Plymouth, Minn., examined how deicing salts affect the long-term survival of common freshwater crustaceans called daphnia. Wei-Hwa Huang, 17, of Montgomery Blair H.S. in Silver Spring, Md., captivated the judges and onlookers at the weekend exhibit of projects with the new strategies he developed for variations of a peg-hopping game called peg solitaire.

Four more finalists each earned $10,000 scholarships, the first three for mathematics or computer science projects. They are Mahesh Kalyana Mahanthappa, 16, of Fairview H.S. in Boulder, Colo. ; Steve Shaw-Tang Chien, 17, and Elizabeth Dexter Mann, 17, both from Montgomery Blair H.S. in Silver Spring, Md.; and Zachary Zisha Freyberg, 17, of Midwood High School at Brooklyn College in New York City for biochemical research.

The remaining finalists each received $1,000 toward college expenses.

Just as serendipity often plays a role in important research discoveries, it also helped guide these high school students to their projects. Ng came up with his project as a result of analyzing whether rounding off provided adequate approximations for balancing his mother's checkbook. Pine happened upon fungi because her father suggested she do research for a summer job. An interest in model airplanes motivated 11th-place winner Aaron James Passey, 18, of Bothell (Wash.) H.S. to do his engineering project.

Their results may advance the frontiers of science. Egeland, for example, showed that salt does exert subtle effects on daphnia. His results suggest that toxicity studies, which typically last a month, may need to run longer, he says. The 12th-place finalist, Michael Ward Itagaki of Punahou School in Honolulu, synthesized a complicated organic molecule that collaborators at the California Institute of Technology are testing as a synthetic alternative to a natural anticancer drug.
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Title Annotation:1993 Westinghouse Science Talent Search winners
Author:Pennisi, Elizabeth
Publication:Science News
Date:Mar 13, 1993
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