Competitor doesn't act her age

Staff WriterNovember 30, 2009 

— Yekaterina Shpanskaya has always been precocious, pushing the academic limits for a person of her age.

Yekaterina, who goes by Katie, started taking college classes at age 13. Now 15, the aspiring doctor tutors college students in math. So it's not surprising that she's competing against students two and three years older in the national finals of the Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology.

"It's an honor to be a national finalist," said Katie, a home-schooled sophomore who lives near N.C. State's campus in Raleigh. "I've always wanted to participate in the Siemens Competition. It's the most prestigious science and math competition that I can be in."

Katie and her project team leader, Neil Shah, 17, a senior at Northwest Guilford High School in Greensboro, made it this far by developing a way to use thousands of computer processors to analyze large amounts of data quickly. They've set up two computer programs to analyze what happens in a simulated fusion reactor to help identify what could cause the reaction to become unstable and slow down.

Fusion is the same atomic energy that powers the sun and other stars and could provide a virtually inexhaustible energy source with no release of greenhouse gases. But scientists haven't been able to produce a working fusion reactor.

"Fusion has such a great future," Katie said.

The project emerged over the summer, while Neil was working as a research assistant for Katie's mother, Nagiza Samatova, an associate professor of computer science at N.C. State and a senior scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Katie's father is also a scientist at Oak Ridge.

Samatova, who became one of the team's five mentors, at first suggested that Neil look for an older student to be his partner. But he hasn't regretted his decision to stick with Katie.

"It's been an excellent experience," Neil said. "I don't think it was disadvantageous at all because she was younger."

The Siemens competition has been a part of Katie's life for many years. Her mother was a mentor for two Tennessee teams that made the national finals, including one that won the top prize.

Samatova had the students explain the projects to the then 10-year-old Katie, an only child, to see how well they could be understood by a layperson. But Katie, who traveled to the national finals twice with her mother, will now be the one answering the judges' questions.

Once the competition is over, Katie, will go back to juggling her high school and college courses. She'll have completed 28 college credit hours at N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill by the end of the semester.

keung.hui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4534

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