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From November 29, 2005, News-Sentinel

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A Winning Team

What do you get when you cross three high school seniors with mentors from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory? A winning team, according to the Southern Region 2005-06 Siemens Westinghouse Team Competition in Math, Science and Technology.

Oak Ridge High School seniors Nick Grabenstein, Patricia Brent and Tarik Umar entered the science competition on a whim. Up against 1,600 other high-schoolers, the trio didn't think they stood much of a chance.

"The Oct. 3 deadline presented a challenge to us," Brent said. "It's kind of early in the school year, so we had to submit an uncompleted project."

The judges didn't see it that way, though. Their project, titled "Searching With Comprehension: Going Beyond Google," beat out 24 other teams to take the top prize.

"We couldn't have done it without the help of our mentors at ORNL," Grabenstein said. "We really need to give them a lot of the credit."

In a course titled "Math Thesis," taught by Benita Albert, the three students were given the opportunity to work with ORNL employees for class credit. Dr. Nagiza Samatova, senior research scientist at ORNL, and research associates Ramya Krishnamurthy and Christopher Symons proposed a list of possible projects, but one stood out above the rest.

"All three of them got excited about the possibility of teaching computers to recognize natural language," Samatova said. "It was just enough to mention to them about the problem, and they came back to us with ideas for possible solutions."

Samatova said this was her first experience working with high school students - and she was impressed at what they accomplished.

"Many people have been skeptical about putting young kids on a project that is both scientifically challenging and time constrained by tight deliverables and real customers," she said. "But during the summer, they've grasped both the depth and breadth of the field - quite comparable with graduate-level students."

Through extensive research in "name entity recognition," the students developed a software program that teaches computers to recognize people, places and other entities in electronic documents.

"I really wanted to find out what it meant to be a scientist," Umar said. "You picture them sitting alone in a cubical solving complex problems, but it isn't that way at all. I picked this project because it was hands on and because it incorporated my love of math and language."

Umar also said this project stood out because there was a need for it.

"So much information is created on the Internet, and most of it goes unprocessed. There is definitely a market now for software that can scan and extract information from those thousands of databases."

The students began work on the project in July and will continue working on it until it is published. Each has already spent more than 300 hours reading research papers, asking questions and solving the problems that arise in software development.

"This is definitely a work in progress," Brent said.

But Symons said he is confident they will succeed at completing their project and their future career goals.

"This project is a testament to their talent and assiduousness. They were all wonderful to work with personally and professionally, and they demonstrated the kind of enterprising young people that they are," he said.

Each student has already won $3,000 in scholarships and grants and secured an additional $2,000 for their school's math department. They will compete at the national competition Dec. 1-9 in New York City, where the grand prize is a $100,000 scholarship to be divided among winning team members.

Ashlie Bolinger may be reached at 865-342-6430.


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