JOHN MERROW: It's midmorning at Townsend-Harris High School in New York City. These young scientists have a lot of work to do.
STUDENT: I have not done any of my abstract work, which is really bad.
JOHN MERROW: This may not look like science, but for these high school scientists, it's essential. They're finishing up a year's worth of work, and if they don't get their entries in the mail by the end of the day, they won't be eligible for more than $3 million in college scholarships and the prestige that goes along with competing. About one million high school students from all around the world enter their work in competitions sponsored by Westinghouse, Intel, Toshiba, Siemens and NASA, among others. Intel's International Science and Engineering Fair, called ISEF, is the most prestigious contest of all. Students submit their own research findings, the results of projects they've spent many months working on in labs and hospitals. Their research was guided by a mentor, a real scientist, engineer or medical researcher. For these 16- and 17-year-olds, the first step was to find a professional willing to work with them. For an adolescent, that can be intimidating. Vito Dilenna, who is studying the effect of cow bacteria in South America, remembers searching for a mentor.
VITO DILENNA: A lot of people aren't very willing to take in high school students. So that process can be strenuous also, because you get a lot of rejections, just people saying no. First meeting was nerve-wracking because all you see behind his desk are his plaques and all of his awards and trophies. So, you see this and you're... I'm thinking to myself, "what do I have that compares to this?"
JOHN MERROW: Marisa Cohen's research involves the effect of drugs on the immune system.
MARISA COHEN: I was intimidated because he has a lot of articles printed. He's a renowned scientist, and I was just coming and I didn't really have that much experience in the lab. I mean, in school we do lab work, but there was a lot of new equipment, new machines. So I just basically had to learn the ropes.
SCIENTIST: Don't put it directly on the middle. Put it along the edges.
JOHN MERROW: Rio May Del Rosario has learned about the importance of communicating with her mentor.
RIO MAY DEL ROSARIO: She understands what I'm saying. I mean, the thing about science research is you can't just go up to a person on the street and initially expect them to understand what you're saying. So, in a way, she's the person I go to talk to.
JOHN MERROW: Alka Mansukhani mentors Rio May at the NYU Medical Center.
DR. ALKA MANSUKHANI, New York University Medical Center: It's been very good to be with somebody young and somebody enthusiastic. And it's mentoring that makes the scientist, and making of a scientist starts... I think if the seed is planted at the... At the right time and nurtured, there's so much science to be done and there's so much that we don't know.
JOHN MERROW: Rio May is studying premature suture forming in bone cells.
RIO MAY DEL ROSARIO: You're working with cells that have been fixed with paraformaldehyde, so they're not exactly, you know, tough on... On the cover slips. So, sometimes if you're not very careful, you could suck up your whole three-week experiment, since you sucked off all the cells that you were growing. So, it's definitely very frustrating. And there definitely have been mishaps, but I think you learn that as you go along. I think this might have been the hundredth time I've done this. So you learn it as you go along.
JOHN MERROW: Jin Whan Choi is studying polymer coating of blood platelets. His mentor is Dr. Steven Schwarz, a physics professor at Queens' College.
DR. STEVEN SCHWARZ, Queens College: The student has to learn that science is not like the laboratory experiments in... In the classroom. There are many false starts, many repetitions required. The student is waiting for interesting data to appear. It takes time. And it's rewarding to see the students become more and more interested as the project proceeds.
JOHN MERROW: Because they are experienced, mentors bring a perspective to research that adolescents do not have. Dr. Leslie Kushner has worked for nearly 18 months with Gloria Lee, whose project focuses on women with urinary stress incontinence.
GLORIA LEE: I found something that I totally did not expect, and I would go to Dr. Kushner and say, "I don't understand this." You know, she's like, "let's look at the different levels and see where it might have gone wrong." And...
DR. LESLIE KUSHNER, Long Island Jewish Medical Center: What she found was no difference between two groups, and she was quite upset about that and talked to me a number of times about that. And it was important for me to explain to her that it meant she did the experiment well, because she proved the null hypothesis. So, she... She actually disproved her hypothesis, which was an exciting result. But that's uncomfortable for a student to go ahead with a hypothesis and then prove their hypothesis wrong. They feel they failed, but that's actually good science in my opinion.
JOHN MERROW: When the mentor relationship works well, these students experience science in a way most 16- or 17-year-olds never do in high school science classes.
JOHN MERROW: Do you feel like a scientist?
RIO MAY DEL ROSARIO: Um, I guess when I'm in the lab, I feel like a scientist.
JOHN MERROW: Do you feel accepted there?
RIO MAY DEL ROSARIO: Definitely. I feel... They speak to me as a peer and they think of me as a peer, so I'm not just the student who's working there and bumming off of them and using their... Their equipment, I'm a co-worker. So, I feel like I've proven myself in a sense and that's part of the... The victory.
GLORIA LEE: The best part was when during the lab meetings, I used to present what I was doing and talk about my work, and it seemed like, I'm sitting next to 40-year-olds and adults, and we're all talking about the same subject, and we're all on the same level. So I guess we're a team.
MARISA COHEN: There's a lot of different people in the lab, but they're all like older than me, and they treat me as an equal. I mean, I have a lab coat and I sit there and I'm doing my work, and they ask me questions sometimes, because they have a lot of resident doctors that were being trained there. And I showed them some procedures that I previously learned. And they had some other new Intel students there and I helped them, too. So I feel pretty important.
SPOKESPERSON: On this application, do you put your name on it also?
SPOKESPERSON: Everything on Intel has your name.
JOHN MERROW: Back at Townsend- Harris, with only a few hours before the deadline, Jin realizes he's forgotten to get dr. Schwarz's signature, which is required to validate his research.
SCHWARZ: Okay, so just this one signature should be all that you need. A lot of forms. Fortunately, we have no vertebrate animals involved in our study of polymers.
JOHN MERROW: At Plainview Old Bethpage High School on Long Island, other young scientists we are following are completing their research projects.
SPOKESPERSON: Remember last year when you did your Dupont essay?
SPOKESPERSON: And we had you find journal articles and books and write an essay on it? Basically, this is going to be the same thing.
SPOKESPERSON: See this beautiful sentence? The results reported indicate that... Whatever it is, acting by way of.. Is indeed a potent blah, blah, blah, mediator. This is big. This is important. You know, you're in the advertising business. You're advertising that Javid is brilliant. Javid has done a lot of work and he's made some new discoveries. Tell them your new discoveries.
ELIZABETH DENTEL, Biology Teacher, Plainview Old Bethpage High School: Because this is more general. Your intro should move from general to specific. At the end, you want it as specific as you can. You want to state your specific hypothesis, and specifically what you are doing.
JOHN MERROW: Elizabeth Dentel, a Biology teacher, is helping students, including Alan Salas, organize and write up their research.
ELIZABETH DENTEL: It's important that they learn how to write. I think as they develop through this research program, the more practice they get in writing the papers, the better, because they did the research and that... You know, that's wonderful, but if you can't tell anyone about it, that's a shame, because it's the most important that you... You tell people about your results.
JOHN MERROW: Back at Townsend- Harris, time is growing short.
STUDENT: What happened?
SPOKESPERSON: First, what does this mean?
JOHN MERROW: When will you go to FedEx?
TEACHER: They're coming here.
JOHN MERROW: They're coming here? When do they come?
TEACHER: Sometime between 2:30 and 5:00; hopefully closer to 5:00.
JOHN MERROW: Akshta?
JOHN MERROW: Are you going to make it?
AKSHTA: Yeah, I'm going to make it. I have to make it. I just need the last signatures from Ms. Brustein. I'm waiting for my abstract to come out.
JOHN MERROW: A few minutes ago, you looked sort of panicky. You yelled at Marisa, "I need your cell phone." What's that all about?
STUDENT: I have to call my mentor and just do some... Check up on.. See if it's right.
TEACHER: We have one hour.
JOHN MERROW: Are you going to be done?
STUDENT: No, I'm not going to be done.
JOHN MERROW: Although these students are in competition, they help each other out.
STUDENT: This is done, so just check that it's done for me.
JOHN MERROW: They're making multiple copies of their research because they're entering regional and national contests. The ultimate goal, however, is the ISEF finals, which will be held this year in Louisville, Kentucky, in May.
SPOKESPERSON: They're here.
FEDEX PERSON: Where are the packages?
TEACHER: Anybody else for Intel? Be ready in one second.
FEDEX PERSON: No, I have... I have no time. If the package isn't ready, I just have to take it and I got to go.
TEACHER: If it's not in there now, it's not going, guys, because I can't risk everybody else's not being on time. Correct? Okay.
FEDEX PERSON: I don't have time to wait while you even make a phone call. I have other stops.
STUDENT: (running) Yo, guy!
JOHN MERROW: It was that close. But in the end, all the students got their papers in the mail on time. Now they wait while the judges decide who gets to go on to the next round.