Researcher's Mentoring Helps Students Advance in National Science Competitions Including Intel Finals

A University of Houston chemistry professor recognized for outstanding mentoring will attend a Washington, D.C., awards ceremony in March with a protégé who is a finalist in a prestigious science competition for high school students.

On March 13, Rigoberto Advincula, who holds dual appointments of associate professor of chemistry in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and associate professor of chemical engineering, will join Yieu Chyan, among 40 high school seniors named finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search (STS) 2007.

A Denton resident, Chyan attends the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science and the University of North Texas. His chemistry project is titled “Energy Conversion Devices from Hybrid Nanoparticles and Conjugated Polymer Network Materials.” He was among 1,705 entrants in the Intel competition and is one of two finalists from Texas.

Chyan and Clayton Ayres, another Advincula protégé, also were named regional finalist and semifinalist, respectively, in the 2006-2007 Siemens Math, Science and Technology Competition. Ayres attends St. John’s School, Houston. Of the more than 1,600 entrants in that competition, there were 345 semifinalists and 89 regional finalists.

Advincula mentored both students beginning in 2005, with most of the concentrated work taking place in his lab in summer 2006. Chyan researched conditions under which thin films used in organic photoelectric devices form and whether the films boost efficiency of devices made of organic materials, which, although cheaper than silicon-based materials, are less efficient. Ayres researched the use of layer-by-layer deposition methods for nanostructured deposition of quantum dot semiconductor nanoparticles and conducting polymers.

“My mentoring approach involves the students working together with graduate assistants on direct-skills training,” Advincula said. “The students work with me on setting goals for the project, deciding on experiments and interpreting the results. While both started with the graduate assistants, both worked quite independently in the end.”

Chyan worked initially with graduate student Prasad Taranekar, and Ayres worked with Rebecca Cai and Lalithya Jayarathne.

After Chyan and Ayres told Advincula what research they were interested in, he linked them with existing projects. “In the beginning, they did a lot of background reading, literature and discussions,” he said. “We eventually settled on a starting point. Pretty much both became independent and started setting the pace and direction of our work together within the parameters we had set for the overall goals of the projects.”

“The recommendation of the mentor and assessment of the individual in relation to the project is crucial for both competitions,” Advincula said. ”They were invited to write their research work and document their progress. Another phase is an actual poster presentation. The finals for Intel will involve several days of interviews and tests.”

The National Science Foundation, its Division of Materials Research Polymer Program and the Robert A. Welch Foundation fund Advincula’s research.

Additionally, Advincula mentors two to four high school students each year through the Welch Summer Scholar Program and the Houston High School Science Club and has mentored more than 30 over the past nine years. He also has mentored a large number of UH undergraduate and graduate students, some of whom have won awards from Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society; the American Chemical Society; and the National Research Council.

In addition to participating in judging and interviews and attending the awards ceremony, Chyan and other Intel finalists will meet with national leaders and prominent scientists, and display their research at the National Academy of Sciences.

According to an Intel release, the Intel STS competition is the “oldest and most prestigious high school science competition; six former finalists have won the Nobel Prize, and others have been awarded the Fields Medal, the National Medal of Science and MacArthur Foundation Fellowships.” Intel will award a total of $530,000 in scholarships, with a $100,000 scholarship going to the top winner. All finalists will receive a laptop with the latest Intel processor.

The Siemens Foundation funds the Siemens competition, which is administered by the College Board. Since 1998, it has recognized this country’s best and brightest science and math students.  University of Texas scientists judged the Southwest regional competition.