Santa Fe teen takes top honor, $25K prize in national science competition

Faris Wald, a freshman at Santa Fe High School, shows off his science fair project on sunspots and how the sun’s coronal holes affect weather patterns on Earth, during a youth science competition in Washington, D.C. Wald won the top prize of $25,000. Courtesy photo

Santa Fe teen Faris Wald was stunned one day last month when he learned he had been chosen as one of 30 finalists in a prominent youth science competition in Washington, D.C.

“How could I be chosen out of 8,000 brilliant minds from around the United States?” 15-year-old Wald, a Santa Fe High freshman, remembered thinking when he received a phone call from representatives of the Broadcom MASTERS program. “Here I am, just a young boy in the ninth grade in Santa Fe.”

This week, Broadcom announced that Wald had won the top award — which comes with $25,000 — for the science expertise and leadership skills he displayed during the competition.

He flew to Washington on Friday for the four-day event, which culminated with an awards dinner Tuesday.

Wald’s honor includes $1,000 for the middle school he attended. Because Capshaw Middle School, where he spent the seventh and eighth grades, has closed its doors, the check will go to the newly created Milagro Middle School now housed on the old Capshaw campus.

Earlier this year, as an eighth-grader, Wald earned top honors at the New Mexico State Science and Engineering Fair in Socorro with a research project that focused on sunspots and how the sun’s coronal holes — dark spots that send solar winds hurtling toward Earth — affect weather patterns such as cyclones.

Science fair organizers nominated him as one of 8,000 middle school students from around the country who were eligible to apply for the Broadcom MASTERS competition. Nearly 2,500 students from 37 states, Puerto Rico and other overseas sites followed through by submitting applications, and then a panel of scientists, engineers and educators narrowed the field to 300 semifinalists and then 30 finalists.

Speaking by phone Wednesday as he made his way back to New Mexico, Wald said the most nerve-wracking moment came at the start of the contest, when organizers laid out the rules of the game.

“You are in this room with total strangers,” he said, “and they tell you all these guidelines and rules that are made to challenge you.”

Part of the competition involved showcasing his research project, but he also had to take part in team leadership-building activities. There was little preparation.

“They didn’t tell us much about what we were going to be doing,” he said. “You walk in, and they give you a briefing: ‘Today you will build an autonomous underwater vehicle to pick up sediment from the pond as well as use coding to make a ball turn on a light with a chip called a Raspberry Pie.’ ”

Paula Golden, president of the Broadcom Foundation, said Wald “had to prove he had those unique leadership qualities where he could engage all the kids on the team and not just see science engineering as a lone profession played with a single hand. He demonstrated that kind of confidence and critical thinking skills that we feel is something that is both learned and innate.”

She added, “In the end, all those attributes came together to make him the star.”

Golden sat next to Wald during Tuesday’s awards dinner at the Carnegie Science Center, she said, and he kept telling her he didn’t have a chance of winning any awards.

Instead, he took the $25,000 Samueli Foundation Prize, named after Henry Samueli, the co-founder of the Broadcom Corp. and chairman of the Broadcom Foundation, and his wife, Susan Samueli, president of the Samueli Foundation.

Other students won a $20,000 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation award recognizing a project that shows promise in a health-related field, a $10,000 innovation award and $7,500 invention prize.

Wald said he is going to stow away most of his prize money to pay for college, though he might set aside a few hundred dollars for a “rainy day fund … for fun stuff.”

He has considered studying to become a doctor, lawyer or engineer, he said, but he wants to experience high school before settling on plans for a career.

The toughest part of returning home, Wald said, is that “I have to catch up on schoolwork. Going to high school is a lot of work.”

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.

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