WASHINGTON, D.C. (March 10, 2009)—If you're 17 and visiting our nation's capital, it's probably enough that your hotel room at the Saint Regis, steps from the White House, has a television in the bathroom.
But if that weren't enough, you're here as one of the 40 whiz kids selected as finalists in the storied Intel Science Talent Search. You've got a shot at $100,000.
But for some kids, that might not be enough. Better throw in a meeting with the president.
The 40 finalists—who have been strutting their scientific stuff for several days, as we've been on hand to live-Twitter and to profile a few projects, everything from Splenda in drinking water to whether parents should discuss their drinking with their kids to cellulosic ethanol—had a hastily scheduled trip to the White House yesterday. That included a chance to meet President Obama.
The first thing Obama told the gathered students was that science is essential for economic advancement. That registered with Aditya Rajagopalan, who says he wants to become an alternative energy entrepreneur. (His project looked at how different enzymes could be used to break down corn stover -- the waste that’s left after a field of corn is harvested -- which can then be turned into energy.)
After some brief remarks, Obama asked the finalists about the next steps were in the competition.
Rajagopalan, a student at Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut, leapt to speak first and describe the process. That got a chuckle out of the president. "I assume you're not the quiet one," he told Rajagopalan.
"I got the chance to advise the president," Rajagopalan told us tonight, full of pride, "tell him something he didn't know."
For another finalist, Menlo Park, Calif.'s Julia Ransohoff, the thrill was even greater, as her project on stem cells couldn't have been more timely: The kids met Obama the day he signed an executive order loosening stem cell regulations.
Thrilled as he was by the brush with fame, Rajagopalan is about substance—and science. Don't look for him to go to college planning to become a doctor and end up as an investment banker: "Science is too important for progress," he told us with the kind of poise that most professionals two or three times his age would envy.
He's still a kid though. It's going to be hard for him to go home after the week as a finalist, he says: "I don't even care if I win. There's a TV in my bathroom."
See our In-Depth Report for all of our Intel STS coverage.
Photo of Aditya Rajagopalan at a pre-gala awards dinner reception by Laura Vanderkam/copyright Scientific American