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Francis Lewis HS team takes 3rd in Siemens contest

Three Queens teens’ archeological project landed them $40,000 and third place in the 2009 Siemens Competition, a prestigious contest in which some of the country’s best and brightest student researchers vie for hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money and recognition from nationally renowned scientists and mathematicians.

Cathy Zhou of Flushing, Israt Ahmed of Woodhaven and Stephanie Chen of Bayside will split the $40,000 prize they took away at the Siemens Math, Science and Technology Competition’s annual awards ceremony held at New York University Monday. Judging for the contest was held over the weekend.

Zhou and Ahmed are juniors at Francis Lewis High School in Fresh Meadows and Chen is a junior at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan.

“These students have just earned the highest recognition for original high school research projects in the United States,” Siemens Foundation Chairman Thomas McCausland said of six individuals and six teams that took away awards Monday. “We know this is just the beginning. Their dedication to excellence and passion for math and science will no doubt change the world.”

The three Queens students spent approximately 800 hours each working on their project, which they started as sophomores and which provides new insights into hominid migration out of Africa. Their mentor for the project was Bonnie Blackwell, a research scientist at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.

The students analyzed fossil samples from two sites, one in Russia and another in France, and through studying teeth and primitive tools were able to determine that hominids had actually moved into Eurasia about 850,000 years ago instead of the often cited 600,000 years.

“This rewrites the history books,” said Zhou, who hopes to major in astronomy or environmental engineering at Harvard, MIT, Stanford or Princeton.

Ahmed, who plans to major in neuroscience at Columbia, Yale or Princeton, said the project changed his life, not only because the trio made a significant impact on the world of science research, but because he was able to apply lessons from the lab to his life in general.

“You really learn how to cooperate with others and be a better person,” Ahmed said.

The 20 Siemens finalists from throughout the country were judged last weekend by a panel of prominent U.S. scientists and mathematicians headed by lead judge Dr. Thomas Jones, a former NASA astronaut and current scientist, author and pilot.

“They worked so hard and they absolutely deserved it,” said Francine Weissman, a science research teacher at Francis Lewis who helped the students with their project. “A lot of the kids involved in the competition came from richer suburbs and were a lot more privileged. Our kids don’t have the same privileges, and it’s their own personal dedication and ambition that allowed them to get there. They were so self-motivated.”

Long Island student Ruoyi Jiang won the top prize, a $100,000 scholarship for research on chemotherapy drug resistance.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 174.

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