Finalists and winners of the 2012 Google Science Fair. Foreground: Vint Cerf and Shree Bose (2011 winner)

An expectant crowd gathered last night inside an airplane hangar at a flight school in Palo Alto, California to hear the winners of the second annual Google Science Fair. The grand prize went to Brittany Wenger, 17, of Sarasota, Florida, who wrote a computer program to help doctors diagnose breast cancer less invasively. Jonah Kohn, 14, of San Diego, Calif. won his age category for creating a device that converts sound into tactile vibration to improve the music-listening experience for the hearing impaired; and a trio from Spain won the 15 to 16 age category for documenting the hazardous and non-hazardous organisms found in water from different parts of their country.

Brittany Wenger

“The whole judging panel came away with a big ‘wow,’” said the technologist Vint Cerf, Chief Internet Evangelist at Google, of Wenger’s project. Wenger, whose prize includes $50,000, a trip to the Galapagos Islands, one year of mentoring and internship opportunities, wrote a computer program known as a neural network to help detect patterns in a large database of breast tissue samples. Traditional biopsies of the breast are painful, but a less invasive type of biopsy known as a fine needle aspirate (FNA) is also less conclusive. Wenger’s program, which she put through an incredible 7.6 million trials to test it for accuracy, helps doctors successfully detect more than 99 percent of malignant tumors using FNA.

Wenger first developed a passion for science as a small child, when she got to know the doctors caring for her younger brother who suffered from a lung condition. “I really grew to idolize the men and women in scrubs and got a taste of what science could do to change the world,” she said. In 6th grade, she had an “amazing” science teacher who encouraged her to pursue projects of her own. “She instilled in Brittany the scientific method … and encouraged her to participate in competitions,” says Brittany’s father, Jeff Wenger.

Jonah Kohn

Kohn came up with the idea for his project in what may be one of the oddest Eureka! moments ever: biting the head of his guitar. Showing a friend some guitar licks one day in a noisy classroom at school, he and his friend discovered they could hear the music much better if they put their teeth on the guitar. Kohn decided to apply this discovery to a project aimed at helping the hearing impaired enjoy music. Using a phenomenon known as tactile sound, Kohn designed a device that filters sound into frequency ranges applied to different body parts. His device improved the listening experience of young people with cochlear implants by more than 95 percent. Cerf was struck by something Kohn said at the end of his presentation to the judges: that tactile sound could have an impact beyond music to illuminate how we perceive language. “I suddenly realized that there are lots of different means by which we understand things, and there is not just a single medium, it’s not just voice: but it’s what we see, what we hear and now possibly what we feel. I wanted to just stop everything and go back to school.”

Iván Hervías Rodríguez, Marcos Ochoa and Sergio Pascual

In the 15 to 16 age category, Iván Hervías Rodríguez, Marcos Ochoa and Sergio Pascual of Logroño, Spain studied what they called “The Secret Life of Water.” They documented the microbes and hazardous substances in fresh water, studied how those organisms influence the environment, and mapped their presence across Spain. “They went back to a very ancient tradition in natural sciences, which is sampling the real world, cataloguing what you find, and then analyzing it to try to interpret what the implications are,” says Cerf.

Top photo: Anna Kuchment

Lower three portraits: Andrew Federman Photography