High School: Carl Hayden Community High School, Phoenix, Ariz.
Invention: 3-D assisted robotic arm
After Eddie Fernandez figured out how to take apart a remote-control car at age five, no gadget was safe. “Toys, batteries, motors, circuits: I wanted to know how they all worked,” he says. In seventh grade, he joined a team that built robots for the national FIRST competition. One entry threw 80-inch spheres eight feet in the air. Another played soccer. He also helped design and build an underwater autonomous robot. But his best work so far, he says, came about when he led the construction of the EVROV robot arm, designed to lift and move instruments to assist astronauts with spacewalks. He also created a complementary 3-D video system that helps human operators gauge depth as they remotely operate the arm from inside their ship. He presented the robot (and its nearly $11,000 price tag) at last year’s Conrad Foundation Spirit of Innovation Awards. Fernandez is motivated in part by uncertainty—his father was recently deported to Mexico. “When it happened, it really hit me that things can change overnight,” he says. “And that I needed to work harder and make better use of my time.”
College: Fernandez will be heading to Arizona State University in the fall to study mechanical engineering.
When Alex Gilbert was about six years old, a close relative of his was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. A year later, she discovered that doctors had misread her MRI results. “I was so young, I don’t think I fully appreciated how shocking [the false diagnosis] was,” Gilbert says. At age 15, he began to study magnetic imaging technology, and after his sophomore year in high school, he had an internship at the National Institutes of Health. There he developed a technique to improve MRI image contrast so that practitioners can more accurately spot the signs of neurological diseases. Magnetic resonance imaging systems excite protons and record the pattern by which their spinning slows down—that’s what produces the image. But the cell density of each part of the body alters the signal intensity: Air and bone produce weak signals and dark images. Fat and marrow produce bright images. Gilbert wrote an algorithm that accounts for those differences and improves image contrast, which can help reveal hard-to-spot tissue damage. The next summer, at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Gilbert developed another technique for improving contrast in MRI images. He found that by injecting a stain that binds to nucleic acids, the structural details in gray matter are clearer.
College: Gilbert is about to start his freshman year at MIT. He plans to major in physics or biophysics.
High School: Acalanes High School, Lafayette, Calif.
Invention: Tin-based cancer treatment
Matt Feddersen and Blake Marggraff have been blowing things up in their backyards together since the fifth grade. “We each have very patient parents,” Marggraff says. In their junior year of high school, they entered the world of formal experimentation. A teacher mentioned that faulty tin-based shields at nuclear power plants were somehow amplifying radiation. Feddersen and Marggraff, who both had family members who had had battled cancer, wondered if tin could be used to create a secondary dose of x-rays that would augment an initial dose, making radiation treatment more effective. In their high school’s biology lab, the students injected tiny particles of tin into a simulated tumor made out of yeast. When x-rays hit the metal, it produced a second wave of radiation like in the faulty nuclear shields, but this time frying additional cells. The treatment killed more than 20 percent more cells than conventional radiation treatments, for only 60 cents per patient. Feddersen and Marggraff plan to test the treatment on human cells when they move on to college.
College: Feddersen is attending the University of Illinois for a year and plans to transfer to MIT. Marggraff is entering Washington University in St. Louis.
Since she first watched a television show about DARPA’s Grand Challenge competition for driverless cars in 2006, Jao-ke Chin-Lee has been fascinated with artificial intelligence. In high school she applied for a summer research program at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and wound up working on an autonomous forklift known as Pokey, one of the lab’s major projects that year. Robots have a difficult time processing the subtle inflections of human language, especially when a lot of background noise is present. Pokey, designed to operate on construction sites, couldn’t tell the difference between spoken commands and the ambient noise that shares the same frequencies as human speech. After teaching herself how to apply the necessary math and computer science to speech processing, Chin-Lee developed an algorithm that filters out the background noise. The program has potential applications beyond just Pokey; she hopes to someday build it into voice-operated wheelchairs, for example.
College: This fall, 16-year-old Chin-Lee, who skipped first grade, will begin her freshman year at Harvard University, where she plans to study computer science and machine learning.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.