Meet NCSSM’s seven Intel semifinalists for 2016

NCSSM’s 2016 Intel semifinalists. Back row, left to right: Rishi Sundaresan, John Watters, Taesoo Daniel Lee. Front row, left to right: Sophia Hu, Michelle Sun, Vibha Puri, Katherine Yang

Intel Science Talent Search, one of the nation’s most prestigious pre-college science competitions, has named seven North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics students as semifinalists in the 75th annual competition. Nationally, 300 semifinalists were chosen from more than 1,700 high school seniors submitting original research. They receive a $1,000 award for their outstanding research while their school also receives $1,000 per semifinalist to recognize excellence in teaching and school support.

Research topics by NCSSM’s semifinalists range from cancer treatment protocols to climate change and renewable energy. Here, our seven winners share a little about their projects and interests, some tips on procrastination, and more.

Sophia Hu
Combination of Ultrasound and Microneedles for the Transdermal Treatment of Melanoma

How I’d explain my project to someone who doesn’t even understand the title: 
Melanoma has the highest mortality among skin cancers. Current treatment methods using systemic chemotherapy and radiation are systemic and detrimental to the patient and may induce further cancers. In response, this research used a unique drug delivery method combining ultrasound and microneedles to transdermally transport cancer drugs. Results showed that ultrasound facilitated the release of the cancer drug through the microneedles; a cell study using trial solutions showed greater cell death of mouse melanoma cells with longer ultrasound exposures. These results suggest that combinational ultrasound and microneedles is a promising approach towards transdermally treating melanoma.   Favorite class at NCSSM: Immunology  

Dream job: Physician scientist

Best tip for avoiding procrastination: Make weekly plans and estimate the amount of time your responsibilities will take before taking breaks

Favorite food: Chocolate  

What I’m reading right now: Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason

Taesoo Daniel Lee
Improving Exciton Transport in Novel Tetracarboalkoxyphenyl Porphyrin Thin Films for Enhanced Organic Optoelectronics 

How I’d explain my project to someone who doesn’t even understand the title: 

Earth’s dwindling resources and climate change call for energy harvesting devices such as solar cells to harness sunlight and turn it into energy. However, many of these current devices are toxic and expensive. In my project, I synthesized novel cheap organic molecules, analyzed them experimentally and computationally, and discovered that my molecules allowed for enhanced energy transfer within these devices. These findings, which show record performance and exceed several literature values, allow for cheap, organic, and more efficient solar cells and light-powered electronics.

Favorite class at NCSSM: Either Organic Chemistry or Computational Chemistry

Dream job: Entrepreneur

Best tip for avoiding procrastination: Consume Vitamin C- it keeps you focused!

Favorite food: Chipotle!

Secret talent: I love gardening. I wouldn’t really consider it a talent, but it’s an activity that I enjoy.

What I’m reading right now: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Vibha Puri
Creation of Plasmodium falciparum Hsp90 Selective Inhibitors for Antimalarial Drug Development

How I’d explain my project to someone who doesn’t even understand the title: 

I aim to target a protein that is essential for the survival of the malarial parasite within the human host. However, a human version of this protein also exists. I created molecules that target the parasitic protein with minimal effect towards the human host’s homologous protein; these molecules have the potential to provide the basis for new antimalarials.

Favorite class at NCSSM: Structures & Dynamics of Modern Networks

Dream job: Working on the intersection of disciplines, synthesizing information and perspectives to target real-life problems.

Best tip for avoiding procrastination: Listen to “Impossible Soul” by Sufjan Stevens. When listening to this 25-minute song, which includes the lyrics “don’t be distracted,” you can’t help but do work.

Secret talents: I play 4 instruments and sing (cocaptain of NCSSM’s a cappella group). And I dance an Indian form of classical dance called Bharatanatyam; I completed my graduation Arangetram dance 2 years ago, which signified my progression into professional dance. Also, I’m creating, along with a partner, the smartphone app ToneAware to facilitate conversation for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (learn more at

What I’m reading right now: Complexity: The Emerging Science on the Edge of Order and Chaos; The Art of Thinking Clearly

Michelle Sun
Projecting the Impacts of Future Climate Change on Wildfires and Water Yield in the Conterminous United States Using an Integrated Modeling Approach 

How I’d explain my project to someone who doesn’t even understand the title: 

 Wildfires burn about 4 to 7 million acres of land every year in the United States. Due to global climate change and droughts that are related to climate change, the size and severity of wildfires have been on the rise in the past decade. Today, wildfires have become one of the top major natural disasters that have caused a countless amount of damages to forests, properties, and human lives. The overall goal of this study was to predict how future climate change may affect the trend of wildfires and their impacts on water in the next 30 years.

Favorite class at NCSSM: Multivariable Calculus

Dream job: Environmental scientist

Best tip for avoiding procrastination: I’ll tell you later… (Just kidding! The best tip to avoid procrastination is to make a to-do list so you can know ahead of time what the due dates and deadlines are.)

Favorite food: Mangoes

Secret talent: I enjoy oil/acrylic painting

What I’m reading right now: Journey to the West

Rishi Sundaresan
Novel Method of Reverse Electrowetting Utilizing Self-induced Potential with Direct Applications in Energy Harvesting

How I’d explain my project to someone who doesn’t even understand the title: Take a water droplet: squish squish, energy comes out.

Best tip for avoiding procrastination? I’ll tell you later…. Lock yourself in your room until you finish it.

Favorite way to spend a Saturday afternoon: Watching football

Secret talent: Running into soccer goal posts

What I’m reading right now: Diary of a Wimpy Kid

John Watters
Fabrication and Characterization of the Micro-impedance Detector for Enumeration of Circulating Tumor Cells

How I’d explain my project to someone who doesn’t even understand the title: I worked on creating a device that can count cancer tumor cells from blood. This device would assist doctors in making treatment decisions.

Best tip for avoiding procrastination: The Benjamin Franklin quote, “Never leave that til tomorrow which you can do today.”

Dream job: To be a panelist/investor on Shark Tank

Favorite food: Mac and cheese

Secret talent: I’ve played the flugelhorn since 9th grade.

Katherine Yang
Developing Cellularly Active Inhibitors of CARM1 for New Anti-cancer Treatment

How I’d explain my project to someone who doesn’t even understand the title: 

The CARM1 protein has been linked to tumor growth in breast and prostate cancers. Currently, there are no anti-cancer treatments that aim to inhibit this target protein. I used computational and biochemical methods to test five compounds, one of which significantly inhibited CARM1 activity. Additionally, I combined previous knowledge to develop a new laboratory test for compounds inhibiting CARM1 in cells.

Favorite class at NCSSM: Mathematical Modeling

Dream job: Interdisciplinary scientist

Favorite food: Crepes

What I’m reading right now: Unnatural Creatures by Neil Gaiman


Of the 300 semifinalists, Intel will invite 40 to Washington, D.C., in March to display their work, participate in final judging, meet with notable scientists and compete for more than $1 million in awards. Best of luck to the semifinalists!

Follow their journey through the rest of the competition at


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