Shilpa and Shweta Iyer during a hike through the desert with their competitors at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix last week. Photo by Maria Brown
May 22, 2013 | 05:50 PMComsewogue High School seniors Shilpa and Shweta Iyer claimed fourth place in the chemistry category at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair last week, winning medals and a $500 prize for their research in alternative energy.
The 17-year-old twins created a more efficient catalyst for the electrolysis of water, the process through which the water's hydrogen and oxygen atoms are extracted. They developed the catalyst, composed of soybeans and the inexpensive metal molybdenum, at Brookhaven National Laboratory.
Because water electrolysis catalysts often use precious metals like platinum, making the process expensive, the Iyers' research could provide easy access to environmentally friendly alternative energy.
After spending a week in Phoenix, Ariz., the Comsewogue students waited on their last day to find out how they had fared.
"We really just came to meet different types of people and learn about different fields of science," Shilpa Iyer said. "Anything we won would be a bonus."
Shweta Iyer shared those sentiments.
"To make it into Phoenix is such a gift for us," she said. "We are incredibly excited to have our project recognized on an international scale."
Billed by Intel as the world's largest high school science research competition, the annual fair awards prizes in categories as varied as environmental management, medicine and health and microbiology. Ionut Budisteanu of Romania earned this year's grand prize of $75,000 — out of the 1,600 entrants from 70 countries — for using artificial intelligence to create a low-cost, self-driving car that uses three-dimensional radar and mounted cameras.
The Iyer twins, who had claimed first place in the Long Island Science and Engineering Fair in March, said they were inspired by many of the other projects in Arizona and were excited to make new friends from other continents.
Shweta and Shilpa Iyer in front of the poster describing their research project at the fair in Phoenix. Photo by Aryeh Rafailovich-Sokolov
"They are so incredibly nice and talented," Shweta Iyer said of the other attendees in Phoenix. "They are wonderful people to meet and be around."
She was able to use some of the Spanish she knows and her self-described "poor Russian" to talk with some of the other young scientists.
From the awards ceremony last Friday, the twins texted their BNL mentor Wei-Fu Chen, whom Shweta Iyer also called her "second dad."
"I am very proud of them," Chen said. "They put a lot of effort into it" by coming into the lab after school, which helped them learn how to manage their time.
Both girls plan to pursue careers in science and are driven to build on their work in alternative energy.
Shilpa Iyer, whose first name means "perfect sculpture" in Sanskrit, will study at Cornell University in the fall, while sister Shweta, who name means "pure" in that same language, will attend Stony Brook University.
"We are both interested in using nature to inspire us," Shweta Iyer said.
The twins had started working at BNL last summer after some encouragement from their parents.
Their father Srinivasan Iyer, who works in the Information Technology Division at the lab, had reached out to Chen after he read about the chemistry researcher's work. He asked Chen if he would mentor the girls and "that's how the story started," Chen said.
"We told them, 'Go in there and give it a try and see how you like the real life world,'" said mother Rajani Iyer. "They complained initially because they wanted to go to the mall."
Giving up other teenage activities to work on their research was well worth it, the twins said.
"I am so happy we made the decision to come to the lab," Shweta Iyer said.
One of the many memories she will take from her journey to Phoenix is hiking past desert cactuses with her new friends from all over the world.
"We were so sweaty and tired, but we were so happy to be with each other," she said. It was great "bonding for all of us."
As for the $500 the girls won for placing fourth in the chemistry category, Shilpa Iyer said they planned to "put it toward college."