Inside Rensselaer
Volume 7, No. 3, February 15, 2013
   
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Young Researcher Named Intel Finalist

Samantha Scibelli
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Young Researcher Named Intel Finalist

High school student Samantha Scibelli—the youngest member of a research team headed by Heidi Jo Newberg, professor of physics, applied physics, and astronomy—has been selected as one of 40 finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search 2013. The talent search is the nation’s oldest, most prestigious pre-college
science competition.

The high school senior is the first from the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Central Schools district to be named an Intel finalist. She is one of seven 2013 finalists from New York state and the only finalist from the Capital Region.

For her research project, “Census of Blue Stars in the Eighth Data Release of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS),” Scibelli spent hundreds of hours viewing more than 12,000 blue stars, classifying them by temperature and luminosity. She discovered that roughly 10 percent were classified incorrectly and has recommended that SDSS add 11 new categories to account for binary stars, featureless stars, cataclysmic variable stars, and other rarer blue stars.

Proper classification can help ensure that astronomy researchers have access to accurate data. “I hope that, in some small way, my research provides data that others can use to learn more about the structure of our galaxy and the universe as a whole,” Scibelli said.

She joined Newberg’s team in fall 2010, after being accepted to the science research program at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School. The program gives students the opportunity to work on cutting-edge research and pairs them with professional mentors. Scibelli and Newberg were introduced by Scibelli’s research teacher, Regina Reals, who met Newberg at an event for the Dudley Observatory. Newberg is president of the organization’s board of trustees.

Newberg acknowledges some initial hesitation about accepting a high school student on the team, but any concerns vanished as soon as she met Scibelli.

“It was obvious that this was something she genuinely wanted,” Newberg said. “The drive and initiative came from deep within her.”

Once the project began, “Samantha accessed the Sloan data set on her laptop and looked at every one of those 12,000 spectra,” Newberg said. “She was just overtaken by the desire to classify all of them correctly. She’s incredible.”

The only age-related issues have been logistical. It can be difficult, for example, to arrange hotel accommodations for a researcher who is too young to have a credit card.

Scibelli has traveled with the rest of Newberg’s research team to present at national conferences and is preparing a paper for publication in a scientific journal. She also continues to participate in high school science fairs.

Next month, Scibelli and the 39 other Intel finalists will travel to Washington, D.C., where they will undergo a rigorous judging process, competing for $630,000 in prizes, including $100,000 for first place.

Although Scibelli has not yet decided where she will attend college this fall, she knows she wants to major in physics or astronomy and pursue a career in research—a decision cemented by her experience on Newberg’s team.

“Being a part of this research and being able to collaborate with professional scientists has been life-changing,” she said. “I look forward to a long and prosperous future in research, and I hope I can inspire other young students interested in math and science to follow in my footsteps.”

To read more about Scibelli and her experience at Rensselaer, go to approach.rpi.edu/.

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 7, Number 3, February 15, 2013
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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