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Nerves are no match for these high-stakes science competitors

High school juniors present graduate-level research to professors at Caltech, competing for Siemens scholarships and a shot at $100,000. In a nearby dining hall, Rubik's Cube aficionados of all ages race.

November 14, 2010|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times

Contestants ranged in age from 10 to 70. The oldest was Valerie Elson, an actress in commercials and on the stage who lives in Silver Lake. She first picked up the Rubik's Cube a year ago.

"It's like acting and reciting lines: If you lose your concentration, you have to start over," Elson said.

Her best time Saturday was 1 minute 51 seconds. "I thought I was faster than that. I guess I'm an adolescent at heart," said Elson.

Contestant Ryan Zeng of Buena Park isn't quite an adolescent yet. The 11-year-old clocked 29 seconds. "My best time ever is 17.5 seconds. I probably didn't get enough sleep last night."

Like most people at Caltech on Saturday, Ryan took a scientific approach to what he was doing.

"I'd say probably your brain is more important than your hands when you do this," Ryan said. "If you forget your moves, you can't solve it."

Saturday evening, officials announced the winners of the two competitions. The top Siemens prizes went to Liu's organ-transplant project and Krishnan and Fernandez's emotion-recognition system. Rubik's Cube winners were Cameron Brown (12.44 seconds), Weston Mizumoto (one-handed, 17.3 seconds) and Andrew Le (blindfolded, 2 minutes 4 seconds).

bob.pool@latimes.com

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