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North High Senior Alice Zhao Has Made a Science of Overachieving

It takes little more than a nanosecond to realize that Alice Zhao, 16, is not your average high school senior.

For one thing, she's on the student council and is president of her senior class at Sheboygan North High School. She's on the tennis team and active in debate and forensics. And she's bright and friendly.

"I'm pretty extroverted," she said.

But she is soaring above the average this weekend as one of 40 finalists in the national 2010 Intel Science Talent Search, also known as the Youth Nobel Prize, in Washington, D.C.

She earned her way as a finalist in the contest, billed as the most prestigious science research competition for high school seniors, through her work as part of a research team at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Officially, her research abstract begins: "Gas dynamic spraying of nanoparticles is a direct fabrication technique for non-structured coatings and bulk parts without coarsening the nanoscale structure."

There's more, but you get the idea.

"In super, super layman terms, we had to have very high temperatures and very high pressure" to spray very small particles onto metallic surfaces, "which is really hard to do," Alice said.

Her research will help create a process whereby industrial parts can be spray-coated instead of having coatings baked on.

"It is less expensive, more efficient and more portable," she said.

Alice arrived in Washington, D.C., Thursday to present her project to a panel of judges, some of whom are Nobel Prize winners. She also will meet members of Congress and even, perhaps, President Obama, she said.

When she got the call informing her that she was an Intel finalist, she reacted as any teenager might.

"I thought I was being punked, totally," she said. "I said, 'Are you serious?' But when I heard people on the speaker phone and they told me I would be getting a package at precisely 4 p.m. on Thursday, I knew it was legit."

Most of her friends were oblivious to the magnitude of the honor.

"Until I told them I might meet Obama. They got excited about that," she said.

The Intel competition has a grand prize of $100,000. Alice is already guaranteed prizes of $8,500 and a laptop computer.

Her father, Yougui Zhao, and her mother, Conghua Wang, arrived this weekend and will stay for the awards ceremony in Washington on Tuesday. Rules, however, require Alice to stay in a hotel with the other 39 finalists.

"I'm most excited about meeting the other 39 finalists. I've already met some and talked to others," she said. "They're all excited about science like me. We have a lot in common. Just to be around highly intellectual and highly motivated students will be really cool."

Those are qualities Alice herself possesses.

She has been playing classical piano since she was 5. When she was in second grade she invented a compact disc cleaner and finished third in the National Invent America competition.

Both her parents are engineers.

"Growing up, our dinner conversation around the table was about thermal dynamics. Stuff like that," she said.Alice hasn't decided where to go to college, but candidates include Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford. She hopes to major in biomedical engineering, she said.

"I like engineering because it's so applicable to life," she said. "Math and science can be kind of theoretical, but with engineering you take a problem, find the answer, and do it and you're done. Next problem."

Music she finds relaxing and debate she says can be stressful.

"In speech and debate, you meet so many interesting people. In music you learn aspects about yourself that math and science don't touch. You can explore yourself," she said.

Alice Zhao works with lab partner Joe Marsho on a thermodynamics experiment in her AP Chemistry class at Sheboygan North High School. Zhao is among 40 national finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search 2010. Photo by Bruce Halmo/The Sheboygan Press

Sheboygan Press Article by Dan Benson
Sheboygan Area School District Press Release
March 14, 2010