While many high school students spent their summer months at the beach or working part-time jobs, Westhampton Beach senior Nicasia Beebe-Wang was at Brookhaven National Lab, toiling over data and research for 40 hours each week.
Last Thursday afternoon, she learned that her hard work had paid off. The 17-year-old was called out of her ninth period student research class and brought down to the main office, where Principal Chris Herr informed her that she was the first Intel Talent Search semifinalist in district history.
“I was completely shocked,” Nicasia said, after learning that she was one of 53 high school seniors from across Long Island, and one of 103 in the state, to be named a semifinalist in the prestigious competition. It is an honor shared by only 300 students out of a pool of 1,700 applicants across the nation.
Nicasia, who lives in Westhampton, first attended the Long Island School for the Gifted in Huntington Station and was valedictorian of her ninth grade graduating class before moving to Westhampton Beach and entering the school’s student research program as a sophomore. She began an internship at Brookhaven National Lab in Upton the following summer with the Neuropsychoimaging Group, which researches human brain function related to behavior, cognition and emotion.
“To work in the neurobiology division at Brookhaven Lab as a high school student is pretty much unheard of,” Susan Rosenberg, the science coordinator at Westhampton Beach High School, said this week.
During the internship, which she continued this past summer and into the school year, leaving early to spend four hours at the lab twice a week, Nicasia processed and analyzed data from a large pool that had been collected by scientists. She explained that she is too young to conduct research with the subjects herself.
Her Intel project, which was born out of that data analysis, focused on cocaine addiction and how individuals with a specific trait, the dopamine transporter gene, reacted to pictures of cocaine. The completed project was 18 pages in length, she explained, and put her under much stress when trying to meet the Intel deadline on top of college applications and her regular high school workload.
But Nicasia, who speaks about her project and accomplishments with an air of humility, said after she submitted the project she was so focused on her next goal—having it published in a scientific journal—that the Intel semifinalist announcement date all but slipped her mind.
“That’s her,” Mr. Herr said last week in his office.
He also described the moment when a reporter from a daily newspaper called him to break the news. “I just started yelling in excitement. We were just thrilled.”
Frank Diehl, who teaches the student research program, stressed that Nicasia is a well-rounded student—the “full package,” as he described her.
“We have a lot of strong students in the building, but she is clearly set apart by the amount of dedication she puts it,” he said on Monday. “She will do very well for herself.”
The research program at the school was established in 1997, Ms. Rosenberg said, and she recalled having another dedicated student that year who spent her afternoons analyzing research data at Stony Brook University. Though that student submitted a project to Intel, she was not selected.
“That was our last real serious hope until this year,” she said. “It’s really something we’ve been waiting for.”
Nicasia is on track to graduate as one of the top students in the Class of 2013 and her parents, Joanna Beebe-Wang and Edward Beebe, are both physicists at Brookhaven National Lab. Nicasia has been accepted to Harvard University, and is waiting to receive a decision from Yale and Columbia. She said she plans to pursue a career in neuroscience.
As a semifinalist, she will receive a $1,000 award from the Intel Foundation, with another $1,000 going to the Westhampton Beach School District. Forty of the 300 semifinalists will be named finalists on Wednesday, January 23. The finalists will receive an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., in early March where they will compete for $630,000 in awards provided by the Intel Foundation.
The winners will be announced at a black-tie gala awards ceremony to be held at the National Building Museum on March 12. The top winner will receive $100,000. Each finalist will go home with at least $7,500.
Superintendent of Schools Michael Radday also congratulated Nicasia on her success and complimented her hard work.
“More importantly, Nicasia is a wonderful person and a shining example of all that is good with today’s youth,” he wrote in an email. “Her recognition by Intel is well-deserved and her future is limitless.”