They researched how protons transfer within DNA. They argued for alternative energy sources. They studied breast cancer and considered how to make its treatment more effective.
And they haven't even graduated from high school yet.
Saturday in Pasadena, a sharp group of local students competed in the Super Bowl of science, vying for thousands of dollars in prize money and recognition for their research.
David Cheng of Calabasas, Manoj Kanagaraj of Chino Hills, Daniel Chiou of Hacienda Heights and Barry Chen of Walnut were four of the 15 teenagers who spent the day at CalTech, getting peppered by professors about their work.
The four young men along with Victoria Petrova of Torrance — who will present her work at Massachusetts Institute of Technology next week — were regional finalists in the annual Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology.
Saturday's individual and team winners will fly to Washington, D.C., in December to present their work in the national competition, and every student there will return home with a share of $500,000.
"Our future is in safe hands," said Tom McCausland, chairman of the Siemens Foundation, after watching the presentations. "We're kind of showing the best of the U.S. educational system, and what young people can do."
Young people, including Cheng, for example, worked for nearly 400 hours trying to figure out how proteins can help suppress virus replication. But he had only 12 minutes in public to sum up his findings for judges.
No matter. He said he wasn't all that concerned about the competition's outcome.
"It's not really about winning," he said. "It's about sharing what I did in the lab with other people."
Shortly before 9 p.m., organizers announced the winners. Angela Zhang, a senior at Monte Vista High School in Cupertino, won the individual category and a $3,000 college scholarship for her biochemistry project designed to eradicate cancer stem cells through a controlled delivery of the drug salinomycin.
The winning team was Jeffry Ling, a junior at Palo Alto High School in Palo Alto, and Helen Jiang, a junior at Henry M. Gunn High School, also in Palo Alto, for developing a data system to help identify infants at risk of developing a severe form of necrotizing enterocolitis. Ling and Jiang will share a $6,000 scholarship.
This year, a record 2,436 students entered nationwide, submitting more than 1,500 projects.
Regardless of the outcome Saturday, Kanagaraj's summer studying breast cancer stretched his already considerable ambitions.
"I really do want to cure cancer," he said.