With an acceptance to Cornell University in the fall, Sam Miller, a Pierson student who will be his graduating class’s valedictorian, is planning to study computer science as a possible major.
However, it is his foray into organic chemistry in Robert Schumacher’s Advanced Placement chemistry classroom, where he has isolated a compound from beech trees that could be made into a powerful medicine, that has brought Sam to the forefront of the most prestigious pre-college science competition in the nation.
Sam has made the first cut of the Intel Science Talent Search 2012, one of 300 of the nation’s brightest culled from 1,839 applicants — the most the competition has ever seen. Modern-day real geniuses compete for $1.25 million in prizes and scholarships in categories ranging from math and physics to biochemistry and engineering.
The 300 semifinalists are each awarded $1,000, with another $1,000 going to their school. If Sam makes the next cut to be one of the 40 finalists (he finds out next week), he could be eligible to be the grand-prize winner, who is awarded a $100,000 scholarship.
Dr. Schumacher, affectionately known as Schu by Sam and others, has sent a student to semifinalist status for the past seven years of the Intel competition. His brother, Richard, is also a teacher at Pierson, and they tag-teamed Sam, with Robert as supervising scientist and Richard as teaching mentor, providing equipment that Sam needed through previous employment with a pharmaceutical company.
“I was inspired by Schu,” Sam said on Tuesday. He explained that he had continued the researach of Ailish Bateman, a former Pierson student, working with a sooty mold compound derived from American beech trees.
“She had isolated anti-fungal properties,” he said. His work tested for micro-bacterial properties and discovered an antibiotic that could work against drug-resistant infections.
In light of this week’s news from India, where a particularly nasty strain of drug-resistant tuberculosis has been uncovered, discoveries like this could be of paramount importance.
Sam hopes to publish a paper on his findings later this spring, most likely in the Journal of Natural Products, a publication by the American Chemical Society.
“It’s exciting,” said Robert Schumacher. “This is the junior Nobel Prize. And it helps to show someone, even someone as intelligent as Sam, how much work goes into formulating a science paper.”