By Cynthia Koons
A semi-finalist in the Intel science competition, known as the “junior Nobel Prize” contest, representatives from the corporation invited her to be on the show Jan. 26 without telling her why.”They just said a few semi-finalists were going to be there. I didn't know what was going to happen,” she said Tuesday. “I just found out on stage, I saw the cue card, it said my name and Intel finalist.”A Harvard-bound Chinese immigrant who attends Robert F. Kennedy High School in Flushing, Lei was selected as one of the 40 finalists out of the 300 high schooler semifinalists who competed nationwide for the coveted Intel prize.”I didn't expect it at all,” she said. “Initially all I wanted to do was an Intel project, that's what I wanted. To be a semi-finalist was beyond my expectation.”The major discovery of her project was that geochemical analysis can be used to determine past environmental conditions.She found her project when she joined the Science Institute at Robert F. Kennedy Community School in Flushing to practice her English after she moved to Flushing from China in 2001.Her two mentors were collecting geochemical data from all over the world as part of a project to date fossil teeth. They hoped at one point to catalogue their geochemical data and analyze environmental conditions with it.When Lei offered to do the project, the scientists she worked with had little to offer her in terms of direction.”All they gave me were suggestions because they have no idea either – we're like standing at the edge of knowledge here,” she said when named a semi-finalist. “No one had done any study on that kind of data. Mostly I just trusted my intuition and imagination.”Joel Blickstein, one of her mentors on the project, said he had never worked with a student as talented in his more than a dozen years of teaching both high school and college.He said she was also a Westinghouse Science Award finalist, although she humbly failed to mention it in her interview about the Intel honors. He said she placed third internationally for a completely different science project she completed during her sophomore year.She is currently taking her third year of math at Queens College because she outgrew her high school's math department after her freshman year. Already accepted to Harvard, she is not sure what she plans to study in college yet.The Intel finalist title awards her a $5,000 scholarship for college.”I think whatever I do, I will do something for cultural exchange between China and the Western world in general,” she said. “I've learned a great deal in the four years I've lived here and I just want to let my people learn about the world outside China.”Reach reporter Cynthia Koons by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.