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Amber Hess' Intel Science Talent Search Blog

by Amber Hess
Regeneron is the new sponsor for the Science Talent Search. This article was written when Intel was still the sponsor.


This blog is about my participation in the Intel Science Talent Search (or STS). I want to encourage others to realize how fun and exciting science competitions can be (they are not just a bunch of geeks talking about nuclear fusion!). I hope students are inspired to enter science competitions after they understand the nature of these competitions and all of the great things you can gain from them.

I thought it would be good to link to some introductory material first, before jumping into my day-by-day journal.

What is the Intel Science Talent Search? Intel uses these words to describe it: "America's oldest and most prestigious pre-college science competition—often considered the 'junior Nobel Prize.' The competition encourages and rewards young scientists for the completion of an original research project and inspires them to pursue science in their secondary education and careers. An American institution, each year it heralds promise for our nation's future."

Here are some relevant links:

November: The application is due on November 17. I had visions of getting it done a week early... yeah right! I did most of my research over the summer, but this application is bigger than most college applications, not even counting the research paper. And, of course, it's due right during the time when I'm preparing my college applications and studying for finals in my four AP classes. Arrrrggg. Nonetheless, I'm determined to pull this together, and I am taking the application itself very seriously. I've never regretted entering any science competition that I've undertaken. Here's what the application included:

Ahhh! Lots of things in that app! I already had my paper in good shape because I had also entered the Siemens Westinghouse competition (, but I had to do a lot of the other stuff from scratch. Only a couple requirements were able to be "recycled" stuff from college applications. Honestly, the requirement that bothered me the most only took 5 seconds to fill out. PSAT scores! Mine are bad, and they are ancient history. What do they want them for? Oh well, I kept working.

I thought of a play on words for one of the essay questions: What have you done that demonstrates your scientific attitude? Do you discriminate between pertinent and non-pertinent evidence in solving a problem? Do you "try it and see?" What is your approach to solving a problem?

Diving right into a problem is generally not a great idea. Whether it is a science, math, or experimental problem, thinking about the problem before trying to solve it yields the best results. For example, if I have a physics or chemistry problem, I always draw a picture of what is happening. This picture allows me to visualize what is going on. Non-pertinent data becomes obvious, and I can ignore it. By thinking about the "big picture" of how everything fits together, I actually "see it and try" instead of "try it and see."
If I am working on an experiment, I plan ahead of time how I will do everything. Even if I do plan everything out, I may still run into difficulties, though. Instead of becoming discouraged, I will search for information about my problem either in a book or on the Internet; thus I can learn from other people's mistakes. If I have no idea why my results are so strange, I walk through the procedure one step at a time, looking for potential errors. In effect, I dissect the procedure, adding in variables only after I am sure each one is not causing the conundrum.

Hmmm. That came out at 199 words, way short of the 300 maximum, but I decided making it longer would not make it better.

I finally got the application done a couple days before it was due. What did people do before overnight shipping services? So all I could do was wait.

January 5: The announcement of the semifinalist winners isn't for another week, but I keep checking the Web site occasionally to see if they posted it early. My dad suggested typing in the URL for the previous year's announcement, updating it for the new year. No luck—they thought of that trick.

January 12: Yeah! They posted the results! I am a semi-finalist! My friend, Amanda Berry, is also a semifinalist. How cool would it be if we were both finalists? But that is unlikely. Even just having one of us be a finalist is slim (13.333% chance-I calculated it!) and there are so many great projects. I am soooo happy just to be a semifinalist!

January 19: Even though Intel was very precise about releasing the semifinalist winners exactly when they said they would, I couldn't resist checking the Web site to see if they posted the finalists early. Why do I waste my time?

January 26: I can't believe it! I am a finalist for the Intel STS! I get to go to Washington D.C.! I am soooooo excited! Today some Intel people randomly came into our chemistry class with some of my teachers, my parents, and a camera crew! They presented my friend (Amanda) and me with big $1000 checks for being semifinalists, and then they told me I was a finalist! I am very, very excited about it. I was in shock because I didn't think I would be chosen since I was only a semifinalist for the Siemens Westinghouse. I was crying because I was so happy. What a surprise! I appreciate the Intel people coming to congratulate us in person. I am still in shock. I can't believe I am a finalist! I! I am 1 of 40 people in the entire country that gets to go to this. And only 1 of 4 from California! It is amazing. I was on TV, and I am going to be in the newspaper. It was really cool! (That previous bit is actually an email I sent to my mentor when I found out I was a finalist).

Left to right: Erika Ammons, Intel; Amanda Berry; Dr. A. J. Galindo, teacher at my school; me, Amber Hess; Tami Casey, Intel.

After lots of handshakes and congratulations, one of the TV cameramen interviewed me (the other two just shot video). The way they do this is interesting. Instead of sending out several people, they just send a cameraman who asks questions off camera. Then back at the studio a commentator does a voice overlay as if he or she was actually on site. I guess if the commentator comes in person, you know that you're really important!

Before they left school to return home, my parents explained that the principal had called to invite them to see Intel present the oversized checks, but she could not indicate whether anyone had been named a finalist. My parents certainly kept the secret. Although, yesterday evening when Intel STS came up at dinner, my dad suggested that it would be a good idea to have a layman's description of my project at the ready because surely someone would ask sooner or later. Thanks, Dad! That little bit of preparation sure helped while talking to the TV camera.

Later in the day, a reporter from the local newspaper stopped by to interview Amanda and me. Unfortunately, my Intel balloons didn't make it through the day. The knot tying them to my backpack was too loose, so off they flew.

When I got home, we had both VCRs running. One station did a 3-minute report on the award announcement, which is really long for TV. I have placed three times at the California State Science Fair and only once was it even in the paper (one whole sentence). I had no idea the recognition that Intel could obtain for us.

January 27: My mom handed me the newspaper at breakfast—Amanda and I have a color picture on the front page. Very cool!

And, later in the day my dad found articles on the Internet about two of the other finalists from California.

January 28: Reflections: Why was I named a finalist? I can't be sure, but here is my best guess:

Things that didn't seem to hurt me:

So, overall, I think the fact that I made finalist indicates that Intel is looking for a balance of all the stuff on the application. You don't have to be best at everything. For example, my SATs were probably offset by a strong science fair track record.

February 5: Lawrence H. Summers, President of Harvard University, made his often misinterpreted comments about women in science and engineering on January 14, and it seems that everyone has been trying to capitalize on it. (You can read his actual comments here: At any rate, my school evidently put out a press release pointing out that both Amanda and I are girls, and CNN must have seen it. So they want to do a story on Amanda and I and women in science. More TV interviews! If I'm not careful, my 15 minutes of fame will be up! (-:

February 8: Today is my birthday! I am 18! How strange and scary. I keep reminding myself that it is my last year of high school. I also have an AP physics test today, and CNN is coming to interview us. Ahhh! Talk about nerve-wracking! The funny part? I was actually more nervous for my test than for the interview. I thought the interview went well. The crew was very nice and considerate. Amanda and I got a lot of strange looks from people as the camera followed us around. After about 5 minutes we got used to it and had lots of fun. They came with us to our AP Chemistry and AP Calculus BC classes.

What a day! I think my physics test went well.

February 14: The CNN broadcast aired today. I was on NewsNight with Aaron Brown. They did a great job with me in a segment that lasted about 3 minutes, although they showed stock footage that included microscope images of chromosomes while we were discussing my project. They were either alluding to the genetic differences between women and men (I don't think so), or they thought that "chromatography" and "chromosomes" were similar. Not really, but whatever! Nonetheless, I am mad at CNN right now because they didn't show very much of Amanda. I think something "important" also aired that day, and they needed more room for it, so they cut her out. Bleah...but I am happy that they did not make me look stupid. All of this has been really exciting!

March 6: I have winter break right now. I just finished my finals, so I do not have to worry about grades for a little while. The last week has been extremely stressful. I have been preparing my project for the Monterey County Science Fair and for Intel STS. Ahhh!!! At least county is finally finished. I won first place in chemistry, Ilang (my friend from another school that I met last year during science fair season) and Amanda tied for first place in the behavioral sciences category (winning first in a category allows you to go to the California State Science Fair, so we will all get to go!). And the best part is that Ilang and I are both going to Intel ISEF!!! ISEF is the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, and it is going to be held in May in Phoenix, Arizona. The top two projects in the senior division are chosen for this "grand prize" award. I was fortunate to go to Intel ISEF in 10th grade and it was the best week of my life! I am soooo happy I get to go again. Ilang went last year, so she understands how much fun Intel ISEF is, too. We should have a blast!

On short notice, the fair director also asked me to speak at the awards ceremony. I'm linking to the speech I gave because it offers some tips, mostly for younger students (it needs some polish, but I only had about an hour to write it).

March 7: The same reporter that wrote the previous article interviewed Amanda and I again. This time she wanted our view on women in science (the Lawrence Summers effect continues). We talked with her over breakfast a few days ago about many things—more than just women in science. It was fun, she is very nice. There was also an article about the county science fair that mentioned Amanda, Ilang, and me. Congrats to all of the winners! And remember, people who like science are not necessarily geeks who study all the time!

It will be a busy spring! I have Intel STS, my final college visits (if I get in anywhere else), Intel ISEF, APs, California State Science Fair, and all of my senior activities! All of it will be really fun though (well...not the APs).

March 8: Packing for the trip today; I leave tomorrow.

March 9 (morning): Well, last night I received a call from America West telling me that my flight out of Monterey today was cancelled due to fog. I had to decide between two options: a flight out of San Jose (which is an hour and a half from my home) that was to leave at 6:15 AM (meaning I would have to get up at 3:00 AM) or a flight from San Jose at 9:00 AM. Knowing I will probably not be getting a lot of sleep this week, I chose the latter flight which allowed me to "sleep in" until about 5:30 AM. I will get to Washington, D.C., a little later, but I might still make dinner! We'll see how the flights go (I hope there aren't any delays).

My flight connects through Phoenix. My parents will be on the same plane for the first leg of the trip, but then we part ways. They are going to visit my grandparents in Ohio before coming to Washington to see me at the public exhibition of our projects and at the awards ceremony. Intel wants the STS finalists to "bond", so they have specifically asked parents to give us a lot of independence this week. They even requested that parents stay in a different hotel.

As I write this, we are driving up to San Jose. I am listening to Mad Season by Matchbox Twenty on my iPod. I like almost all genres of music, so I have quite a variety of songs loaded. My iPod is the first that was available for use with Microsoft Windows (my family tends to be early adopters), so it's kind of clunky compared to the newer ones—how fast technology changes!

I can't wait to meet the other finalists! Soon I'll be able to tell you about the actual competition.

March 9 (evening): I finally arrived in Washington DC! It was a bit later than I wanted, but I was able to unpack and order room service before meeting some of the West Coast finalists. Everyone seems very nice. My roommate, Po-Ling Loh, is from Madison, Wisconsin. I am tired, so I am going to stop writing now. All of the flights went well. I will tell you all more tomorrow (hopefully!).

March 10: Today the rest of the finalists arrived. Many of them only had to travel a few hours by train (lucky them!). All of the finalists are so amazing. Each one is very intelligent, but also human. We are all talking about the judging tomorrow, and what it might be like. Each finalist does not want a judge to ask something in a certain subject area, so we are not super geniuses or anything (we don't know EVERYTHING about everything). At the moment, we are trying to get used to the hotel and our surroundings.

Today Mr. Jack Franchetti, a presentation skills expert, gave us tips on speaking in front of the media and the judges. It turns out that 60% of what people remember when they are listening to someone is visual, 30% is tonal, and 10% is content. So, the most important thing to concentrate on when speaking with someone is your body language—you must look confident. Repetition of your key message is also important, because if you repeat something, a person is more likely to remember it. For example, Mr. Franchetti pointed out that we remember "I have a dream" from Martin Luther King's famous speech because he repeated that phrase 7 times in 1 minute 17 seconds (and 13 times overall). You should also stay positive (even if the interviewer is being negative), and be concise. Thinking about what questions people may ask you and preparing answers for them is a great way to prepare yourself.

Everyone seems a little nervous about the judging tomorrow, including me. However, I know that it will not be too bad, and it could actually be fun. I welcome the challenge and will try to look at it as a learning experience.

On Monday we might meet the President! Even the people who do not agree with all of his policies are excited. So far it has been really fun! Once I meet more of the finalists and get to know them better, I will tell you about some of them and their projects.

My new friend Kelley Harris and I (she is also from California) went to the corner drug store today to pick up some items. It actually isn't too cold (more refreshing than anything), and it was nice to be outside for a little while.

I'll tell you tomorrow how the judging went!

March 11: It was a very, very long day today—three rounds of judging for me (some finalists only had two) and then a dinner where a former finalist spoke. I'm too tired to write now, so I'll fill you in later...

March 12: I only have one more judging session left! I had three yesterday. The questions were as difficult as I expected them to be. Examples include:

1. What is the latitude of California? If you don't know, how could you figure it out?
2. Why is it that this hotel delivers hot water almost immediately, but my house puts out cold water first, and then the hot water?
3. Design your own experiment to find out if left-handed people are smarter than right-handed people (I liked that one).

Explaining the answer to these questions is harder than it appears. On a written test, you can take a lot of time to think and then write out your answer. For an oral test, however, you have to explain how you obtained your answer, and you only have a few seconds to think. A lot of the time I left out obvious things that were important, i.e. you cannot assume the judges are thinking the same way you are. I like to have to time to think about my answer, and I am not used to quickly explaining something like answers to those questions. It is very hard to prepare for this type of judging—you have no idea what the judges will ask you next!

The judges are quite nice, actually. I talked with a few of them after my sessions and they are not as intimidating as they are when judging.

The night before the judging, some of us watched Spider-Man 2, which was fun. Some of the guys went out to Burger King, and came back wearing paper crowns (it was VERY entertaining).

Last night we met a Nobel Prize winner! His name is Dr. Frank Wilczek, and he won fourth place at the Intel Science Talent Search in 1967. His research was very interesting. It was about the fundamental particles called quarks.

Now, each of us also has a mini-planet named after us! (I think the actual terminology is "asteroid", but mini-planet sounds better). I think Science Service has a partnership with one of the MIT laboratories that researches the mini-planets. I'll find more about that later. [Here's the link: The Linear Project.]

My roommate, Po-Ling Loh, is EXTREMELY good at math. She thinks she will attend Caltech and major in math. Her project is on groups (part of an area of math called abstract algebra). Group theory is the study of fundamental objects in mathematics, called groups. (As she says, "That is the lowdown on group theory.") She also says "Intel is cool." So, basically, in order for me to understand her project, she would probably have to explain it to me for an hour. Math projects are the most difficult to explain to people, since they are in such a specialized area most of us have not studied. But all of them sound very cool! It is amazing how much math/science talent is found here! Po-Ling competes in a lot of math competitions, including the AMC and AME. She has qualified for the National Math Olympiad six times! Only about 200 people in the entire country qualify for it each year. Wow!!!!!

After all of the judging is over, I think we will start having more fun. Everyone has been stressed out about the judging sessions. After the judging interviews, we have our project interviews. I hope that goes better. For those, we are on our own turf, so theoretically, it SHOULD be easier, although I am sure the judges will still ask very challenging questions.

Today we will set up our projects in the National Academy of Sciences in the Great Hall. Then we have a meeting with Merck about internships for the summer.

All in all, the judging has been hard, but kind of fun! I like solving the tough questions and I feel really great when I get the answers correct.

March 13: Today we had judging at our projects. That actually went pretty well (I think my science fair experiences help with that). I had a nice discussion with the chemistry judge. In the morning, we had group pictures taken at the Capitol and with the 14-foot Einstein statue at the National Academy of Sciences. It is Einstein's birthday tomorrow, so we sang happy birthday and had cake with the statue.

From 1:00 - 4:00 we had public viewing, so I discussed my project with people ranging from 5-year-old children to people with lots of science knowledge. It was actually a lot of fun. There were a few people who wanted to learn more about my project and keep in contact with me. My mom and dad arrived yesterday in Washington, D.C., so they also came to see me today. It was nice to see familiar faces!


Here I am at the public viewing, discussing my project with Mrs. Gayle Wilson, former first lady of California. Mrs. Wilson was herself an STS Finalist before attending Stanford University where she majored in Biology. She served as the catalyst for the establishment of the excellence-based California State Summer School for Math and Science (COSMOS) and today serves as chair of the COSMOS Advisory Board.

After public viewing, we had a Business Week roundtable. Otis Port from Business Week had us talk about current issues, such as the energy crisis (fuel), women in science, and globalization. It was great to hear people's opinions on each subject. Before we came to Washington, Mr. Port also solicited our opinions in a survey and invited us to submit essays on one of several topics. I submitted a piece on women in science: "Women in Science Aren't All Geeks." You can see the entire Business Week special in the March 28, 2005, article: "Meet the Best and the Brightest."

We were invited to the reception for winners of the National Medal of Science, so we talked with prominent scientists for a while. Tomorrow President Bush will award the medals to these scientists (and we get to see the ceremony). So, we all feel very important and appreciated!

Everyone is blowing off steam since the judging is over. As I write this, some people are watching The Italian Job on a huge flat screen TV. We are debating whether to watch something else (we have watched I Robot about ten times, and we have also watched the Italian Job a few times, too).

Oh...something I forgot to mention yesterday—we elected the finalist who will speak for us at the award ceremony. His name is David Bauer. I voted for him—he is a very nice, intelligent, sensitive, and funny man. I'm sure his speech will be fantastic. The student speaker is called the Seaborg speaker, named after the very famous scientist, Glenn T. Seaborg (the chemical element Seaborgium is named after him).

We are exhausted from all of our activities. I'll tell you more tomorrow!

March 14: [The last couple days have been a whirlwind, so I'm actually writing this while on the airplane home.]

Well, as my classmates in California were in their first class after returning from winter break, I was meeting the President! We got to enter the White House through the front door (most visitors come in through a different entrance). We had our picture taken with President Bush, and he spoke with us for a few minutes. He encouraged us to pursue our interest in science, congratulated us, and then shook hands with anyone who was willing (which was just about everyone—I have to wonder how often he gets colds!). Afterwards, we saw the National Medals of Science and Technology awarded to their recipients, and President Bush recognized us again during the ceremony. Then, we were invited to the reception for the National Medal winners, and we were allowed to eat in our choice of rooms such as the Green Room and Blue Room! You would think they want to preserve the furniture and such as much as possible, but we ATE there! It was very cool! Some of us took paper napkins as souvenirs (-: I had my picture taken with one of the medal winners. What an exciting morning!


President George W. Bush meets the 40 finalists of the 2005 Intel Science Talent Search in the Blue Room of the White House, Monday, March 14, 2005. The science competition, known as the junior Nobel Prize, allows U.S. high school seniors to complete an original research project that is reviewed by a national jury of professional scientists. White House photo by Susan Sterner. (That's me in the first row, last person on the right.) White House photo by Susan Sterner.

In the afternoon, we also had our last public viewing session. After my sophomore year I attended a residential, summer science program called COSMOS (held at some of the UCs—I highly recommend it). So, five visiting representatives from COSMOS were interested in my project and any thoughts I had on how they could encourage others who participate in COSMOS to become interested in science competitions. Just as it was yesterday, the public viewing was very fun. I was interviewed by someone at CNET who was reading this blog and wanted to talk to me. We took down our projects afterward.

Before dinner we had to rehearse for the awards ceremony. There were only a few things we needed to remember: medal, flip, shake, shake, turn (or, in English, get your medal, flip your hair out from underneath the ribbon, shake peoples' hands, and then turn to the audience). We were starving, but eventually got to eat.

We had dinner at the Melting Pot. The food during this trip has been delicious! I forgot to mention that at the Alumni Dinner on Friday, there was a chocolate fountain (and yes, it was an actual fountain). The Melting Pot is a fondue restaurant, so we prepared our own meal. It was VERY good. There were some friendly fencing competitions with the fondue forks. We discussed Star Wars, and when June-Ho found out that Po-Ling had not seen the original films, he stated "you are being deprived of great joy." He was being a tad silly.

Dinner and friendly fencing at the Melting Pot.

We returned to our hotel, and I was going to go down to the computer room for a little while, but The Terminal was playing, and I wanted to watch it. At about 12:15, I finally headed up to my room (luckily Po-Ling was fast asleep, and said that I did not wake her—we seem to be very compatible roommates, as we tended to go to bed at the same time). Po-Ling was scheduled for a TV interview in the morning, and had to get up around 5:00. Luckily, I did not have an interview, so I slept in.

March 15: We traveled to the University of Maryland to get a tour of the physics department. We met two Nobel Prize Winners: Dr. Leon Lederman and Dr. William Phillips. Dr. Lederman told us a funny story about meeting Einstein. When he told Einstein what he was researching, Einstein simply stated that it was useless, and he should be doing something else with his life. And then Einstein just walked off...but Dr. Lederman was excited anyway!

We learned about two research projects that were occurring in the physics lab. One was studying nanotubes and their properties. The other one was using lasers to "define" the volume of plasma and lower its temperature. Both were very cool! I am so happy I was able to see what other researchers are doing.

Everyone got dressed up in gowns and tuxedos for the awards ceremony at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. All of the girls looked so beautiful and the guys were very handsome. Since this event was for us, we all wanted to look great. Many people attended; over 600 people came just to celebrate us! Before the guests arrived, we had a private meeting with Dr. Craig Barrett, the Chief Executive Officer of Intel. He gave us some wise words, and actually talked with us for a long time. Dr. Barrett is an exceptionally busy man, and I appreciated him coming in person for the ceremony. Science education is a major concern for him.

Before the awards were announced, we had a short poster session where the people who were invited to the banquet could see our projects. My parents and a childhood friend now living in the D.C. area, Brad McMinn, came to the event; I haven't seen Brad in quite a while so I am glad I was able to chat with him for a bit. Some of the evaluators who pick the semifinalists came and congratulated me on becoming a finalist. One said he gave me the highest score possible, and he was really hoping I would become a finalist. I feel so appreciated! Wow!

The way the final competition works is like this: the judges select 10 out of the 40 finalists to receive additional scholarships (we all get scholarships of at least $5,000). Interestingly, of the six previous finalists who have won the Nobel Prize, only two of them were selected in the top 10 during the year in which they participated, and neither of them was the overall winner. So, when they tell us that we are all winners, it's really true!

MY ROOMMATE WON!!!!! YEAH!!!! I am so happy for Po-Ling, who won 10th at the awards ceremony. Lots of my other friends won something as well (including my "name-buddy" Ryan, who was next to me during the public viewing because it was in alphabetical order, my "bus-buddy" Justin Kovac, and fellow Californian Kelley Harris), so it was very exciting! Our Seaborg speaker, David Bauer won 1st!!!!!!! He is soooooo nice, and he totally deserves it. I am happy being a finalist, just being named as 1 of the top 40 science students in the nation is enough for me. All of the other finalists are so smart and charismatic, I'm sure it was hard for the judges to select the top ten. Confetti came out when they announced who won first! It was extremely awesome!


After the awards ceremony we went back to the hotel and had a party. Lots of people were dancing (and eating, of course). Some of us attempted swing dancing, but few of us had much experience. Most of us were just dancing to have fun, and did not really care if we looked like a bunch of nerds who had no idea what we were doing (which is the truth, actually). I danced with David for the last song. When I asked him how he felt being the grand prize winner, he summed it up perfectly: "amazing" he said.


Po-Ling and I after the awards ceremony


Stepping out!

March 16: I am sad. I do not want to leave, especially since it means I have to go back to school and do homework. Po-Ling left early in the morning. I'm sure we will keep in touch by email and phone, but I will miss her. We would have been perfect roommates in college, but Caltech is not one of the schools I'm looking at.

The worst part about leaving is that I am leaving my friends. I have met so many amazing people and I wish I had more time with them. It's difficult for me to describe what it was like to spend a whole week with a group of talented people who share so many of my own interests. There is a bond between all of us because of our passion for science. How often do you get to meet people like this, who study something not just to get into a good college but because they enjoy it? Believe me, not very often. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I would not take back a minute of it, even the stressful minutes. This whole week has felt like a dream. Time passed, but I felt like I was in another world and time was standing still. I am so grateful for being nominated as a finalist, and I think this experience gives ISEF a run for its money for the best week of my life.

I hope this blog serves as inspiration to current scientists, prospective scientists, and people who do not think they will ever become a scientist. To close, I will give you this piece of advice: if you are curious, inquisitive, and want to learn how the world works, you ARE a scientist. You do not need to understand advanced physics and calculus to become one. Just ask questions and try to answer them for yourself, then you will be a scientist. I hope everyone reading this takes that to heart. I'm sure some of you will follow in our footsteps.

Congratulations to all of the winners, and to the other finalists! I'm sure I will be seeing your names up for a Medal of Science or Nobel Prize in the coming years.