A science whiz, a professional ballet dancer, a born storyteller, a basketball star, and four others talk about their lives and their hopes for the future
by Nora O'Donnell
In the beginning, he fiddled with Legos. By age 12, he tinkered with computers. A couple of years ago, he toyed with game theory. These days, he assembles molecules. “I just always wanted to understand how to build things,” Eric Shyu says, bashfully downplaying the genesis of his scientific curiosity. But it’s no fluke. The Illinois Math and Science Academy grad has five research publications under his belt, the title of Intel Science Talent Search Finalist, and a promising future waiting for him at MIT.
Much of that success comes from his work with polymers. Last summer, the budding chemist from Naperville spent his vacation at a selective science program at Michigan State University (MSU). While there, he combined metals with organic molecules, quickly discarding misfires and tenaciously following up on leads. “Eric is great at recognizing when something isn’t going to work,” says Robert LaDuca, his mentor from MSU. Then LaDuca invokes a football analogy: “He knows when to punt and when to go for it, and that’s an almost unteachable knack.”
Shyu’s hard work paid off. His experiments uncovered 12 new polymers, two with unprecedented structures. The application? As with most basic research, the commercial viability of this kind of discovery is probably years away, but Shyu’s polymers could play a significant role in storing hydrogen, an element that is difficult to contain safely with current technology. Ultimately, new polymers that improve low-pressure hydrogen storage promise to make clean power widely available.
Shyu’s research caught the attention of the judges at Intel’s talent search, often referred to as the junior Nobel, and Shyu beat out more than 1,600 applicants to become one of 40 finalists. This past March, the finalists hobnobbed with Nobel laureates and met with President Obama to discuss the importance of science and math education in solving today’s (and tomorrow’s) global problems. “I walked away feeling both humbled and excited,” Shyu says of the competition. “Perhaps in the future, I can make as big of an impact on the world as many of these people have.”
Photograph by Ryan Robinson