In mid-May, Shauna Kwag ’20 will become Blair’s first-ever representative at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF), the world’s largest international pre-college science competition. She, her research partner, Peddie School sophomore David Park, and their faculty sponsor, Blair math department chair Caren Standfast ’95, will travel to Phoenix, Arizona, where they will join 1,800 high school students from more than 75 countries, regions and territories at the weeklong event. Symposia, panel discussions with renowned experts, and the opportunity for Shauna and David to showcase their independent mathematics research and compete for $4 million in prizes will all be part of the once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Shauna and David were chosen for this honor in March, when they competed in the Nokia Bell Labs New Jersey Regional Science Fair (NJRSF) at Rutgers University. Their math research project—“On the largest empty rectangle among points in a square”—earned multiple awards, including the mathematics category award, a Mu Alpha Theta Award and the NJRSF’s top recognition, an ISEF Trip Award. Shauna and David’s project was among only six of 120 projects entered in the 2019 NJRSF to receive an ISEF Trip Award, and their participation in the NJRSF involved a complex and exacting application process, as well.
“I’ve always really liked math,” Shauna said as she reflected on the genesis of her and David’s research project. When she was younger, she was drawn to the subject because there were clear-cut answers to problems. “As I got older, I realized that simply is not the case, but I began to like the conceptual part of math even more.”
She and David became friends while attending middle school together at Fay School in Massachusetts, and the duo had long wanted to tackle a joint research project. Last summer, they settled on their topic, connected with their mentor, Hofstra University professor Dan Ismailescu, and set to work. “The question we addressed is very famous, and we researched how others attempted to solve it,” Shauna said. “Then we took our efforts in a different direction.”
Their work continued throughout the summer and incorporated aspects of geometry, number theory and combinatorics—some of which Shauna and David had to teach themselves—as well as a great deal of programming. Finally, they produced a poster explaining their process and results. “Our research has interesting applications for manufacturing,” Shauna observed, explaining that the ability to calculate the maximum area of a rectangle created by points could help a company make optimal use of its raw materials. “The ways we can apply this knowledge are very cool!”
Competition & Camaraderie
Competition at the NJRSF involved multiple individual and group presentations to doctoral-level scientists, who reviewed and judged Shauna’s and David’s work. Even though Shauna thought she might be nervous doing this, she found that once she got into it, the presentations were actually fun and rewarding.
Beyond the competition at the Intel ISEF in May, she also looking forward to the experience of being among so many like-minded peers and the exposure she will gain to everyone’s research and projects.
Mrs. Standfast is also looking forward to attending the Intel ISEF, which has been described as “the Olympics of math and science.” “This is an exceptionally high-level international program, and it will be exciting to see Blair listed among the participating schools for the first time ever,” she said. She is proud of Shauna and David’s collaboration—which she calls “a real Blair-Peddie win!”—and the fact that their project was executed without faculty involvement from either school. Finally, as math department chair, Mrs. Standfast is delighted that Shauna’s success highlights the exciting possibilities for women in math. “We couldn’t have picked a better person to represent