BH-BL student vies for ‘Junior Nobel’
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BURNT HILLS & BALLSTON LAKE Scientists perusing Samantha Scibelli’s astronomy research at conferences ask her what graduate school she attends.
Giving the answer makes her smile — she’s a senior at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School.
Scibelli’s research project, where she revealed issues with a public astronomy database that could hinder other astronomers’ research, has earned her a spot as an Intel Science Talent Search finalist.
The town of Ballston teen, whose parents are Anthony and Julie Scibelli, is one of 40 high school seniors in the country who are finalists for the prestigious award, which is informally called the Junior Nobel Prize.
She will travel to Washington, D.C., in March for a week of activities that culminate in her parents and teacher, Regina Reals, joining her for a ceremony where the $100,000 grand prize winner will be announced.
Each finalist is guaranteed at least $7,500 in scholarships, plus $1,000 they won as semifinalists. The finalists were chosen from among 300 semifinalists.
“It’ll be fun to meet everyone and be around so many smart kids and learn about their projects, which are really, really interesting,” Scibelli said.
Other students’ projects deal with such topics as cancer treatment and alternative energy.
She may get to meet President Barack Obama, who is scheduled to visit with the students.
The 20 female finalists each have hair and nail appointments before the big event, and the 20 male finalists are fitted for tuxedos to wear at the ceremony. They are also given professional cards to hand out that have their photo and research highlights.
“They really are treating them like kings and queens,” Reals said.
Scibelli’s project focused on the classifications of blue stars in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a database that keeps an electronic fingerprint of the light wavelengths of stars. She found that about 10 percent of the 12,000 stars she studied, or 1,203, were incorrectly classified as blue stars when they were really other types. She also found stars that have been seen but never classified in the database.
Stars are electronically classified based on readings that a telescope takes of their light wavelengths. A graph of that spectrum then is matched to a template in a computer.
However, sometimes the graphs don’t match up and the star is put in the wrong category, said Scibelli, who found the problems by doing database searches and comparing the individual stars’ graphs to the templates.
The project took hundreds of hours, Scibelli said.
Blue stars are brighter and burn hotter than other stars, making them easier to see. They’re unique because they burn their energy faster and die more quickly than other types of stars, and astronomers study them to learn about the galaxy.
“It’s been shown that some of the rare types of blue stars … are very helpful to astronomers that want to catalog the structure of our galaxy,” Scibelli said.
Scibelli and her adviser, Heidi Newberg, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, now are working on getting Scibelli’s research to the organization that runs the database. Scibelli is writing a paper detailing her findings, in the hope that changes can make the database run more smoothly and accurately for other researchers.
In Reals’ scientific research class, which has 20 students, students sign up for three years of intense scientific study on top of their other science classes. They work with Reals and other outside mentors on developing projects.
Newberg had studied blue stars as part of a project looking at the structure of the Milky Way. She had seen problems in the classification, so she guided Scibelli to study them.
“Somebody needed to do it,” Reals said. “It took a high school kid to do it.”
Newberg and Scibelli went to California last month to present Scibelli’s research at the American Astronomical Society meeting.
She has been chosen for other honors, including being picked last summer as a NASA WISH Aerospace Scholar, a program for women in science, technology, engineering and math disciplines in high school. She also won a scholarship to the Advanced Astronomy Camp in Tucson, Ariz., in 2011.
Now she’s facing a decision this spring about colleges. Scibelli’s first choice is to attend Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and she’ll find out by the end of March whether she got in. She’s applied to six other schools to study astrophysics and plans to eventually get her doctorate.