Senior chosen as finalist in Intel science fair

February 15, 2012 — by Allison Chang
Photo by Sample Name

Bob Kucer and a representative of the Intel Science Talent Search congratulate senior Alissa Zhang on Jan. 20.

Last year, senior Alissa Zhang read an article about how 350 million people in the world had diabetes. Then, reflecting on how several of her friends and family had the same condition, she decided to do something about it.

One year later, Zhang’s seemingly random idea led to a discovery that has landed her in the finals of the nation’s most prestigious science fair. She completed the development of a method of monitoring diabetes using tears or urine, an alternative from the typical blood test.

This new test may be monumental for diabetes patients, especially diabetic children, since it is much less painful than finger pricks to track their insulin levels.

This research made her one of 40 finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search. She was chosen out of 1,839 top-notch applicants from across the nation.

Each year, 300 semifinalists are chosen and compete for those final 40 spots.

Out of these 40 students, only one will be chosen as the winner. The decision will be made in Washington, D.C., on March 13 after a week-long judging process.

Nine students were chosen from California, the most from any state, three of whom are from the Bay Area. One was from Palo Alto High School and another from Bellarmine College Preparatory School.

All finalists will receive a scholarship of at least $7,500 while the first-place winner will receive a $100,000 prize.

Zhang dedicated a little over a year to the project, working through the spring, fall and part of summer on furthering her research in a laboratory at UC Santa Cruz, spending at least 500 hours on the entire project.

Her success did not come easily, though. She managed to work through a variety of obstacles.

“In any project there are always times where things aren’t working out, or you can’t get whatever the results you have to get,” Zhang said. “That happened to me a lot. However, towards the end, it was fun working on it.”

Zhang had help form mentors along the way. At UC Santa Cruz, she worked with professor Yat Li for her current project and Dr. Fang Qian and professor Miriam Rafailovich for past research projects.

However, what started her off in her career in research may have been the SHS science teachers Bob Kucer and Kathy Nakamatsu.

“[There] was a time when [Zhang and I] spoke and I encouraged her distinguish herself from other students by partaking in unique research projects,” Kucer said. ”Whether or not this was a motivating factor, I'm not sure, but I'm happy to see she found a mentor to study one of the biggest health concerns in our society and quickly becoming a health concern in other countries.”

Aside from teachers and professors, her family played an important role in Zhang’s achievements.

“My family has always been very supportive of whatever my interests are, including research,” Zhang said. “They were also very happy for me when I learned that I was a finalist.”

Zhang already has an impressive resume. During her sophomore and junior years, she worked at UC Santa Cruz researching clean energy sources. Additionally, she interned over the summer in a laboratory out of state.

With all this experience under her belt, it should be no surprise that Zhang is planning on going into research later on in her career.

For students who may be thinking of pursuing similar paths, Zhang believes that students should be confident and contact as many professors as possible.

“At the beginning, everyone is thinking, ‘Oh, I can’t do this at all, I can’t do anything that’s important.’ But you can.”

 

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