Who Judges Genius in Google’s 2013 Science Fair?

BY Christian Sager / POSTED August 26, 2013
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The 2012 Google Science Fair judges and winners. The 2012 Google Science Fair judges and winners.

When you’re holding a competition rating young geniuses’ ability to change the world, who do you tap to determine which of the wunderkinds wins? For the Google Science Fair, you would expect the judges to be smart, accomplished, award winning thinkers. They are. But the judges for the competition have several other commonalities. With only a month left until the final judging at Google’s headquarters, it’s worth taking a look at how the company chooses someone to qualify the brilliance of these adolescents.

First of all, it’s clear that Google wanted judges with experience under their belts. Patricia Bath for instance has over 40 years in both medicine and academia, developing laser treatments for cataracts. Bath is also a trailblazer for both women and African-Americans, earning first time accolades in multiple fields. Similarly, Mary Lou Jepsen is a digital display screen pioneer that the Anita Borg institute named one of the top 50 female computer scientists of all time. The judges aren’t just experienced in science though, as Google seems to also value a variety in knowledge from the team. For instance Mariette DiChristina has spent over 20 years as a journalist, the last 12 of which she’s been the first female executive editor for Scientific American. The judge with the most experience however is probably Sir Harry Kroto, with over 50 years in chemistry. Kroto’s received dozens of awards for his work, including the 1996 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Not to mention, he’s — you know — a knight.

Kroto’s also an example of how Google values judges whose efforts contribute to world progress. He helped start the Vega Science Trust to provide free, educational science films. In a similar attempt to promote scientific knowledge, Kroto is also a part of the Global Educational Outreach for Science, Engineering and Technology (GEOSET), a web resource dedicated to distributing educational materials to both students and teachers. Bath and Jepsen are also philanthropic with their work. Bath as an advocate for the blind and visually impaired, while Jepsen is the co-founder of One Laptop per Child (OLPC), an organization with a mission to provide affordable computing to all children. Another Google Science Fair judge, Thomas Culhane, founded a nonprofit organization called Solar CITIES that strives to support renewable energy projects for households in developing countries.

As a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, Culhane is also quite media savvy, producing videos, podcasts and blog posts about his experiences travelling around the world. Kroto’s work in science education is obviously designed for multimedia channels, while Bath contributed to the development of an educational mobile app called iLaser. So the judges Google’s chosen for this Science Fair aren’t stodgy navel gazers sitting in a room full of dusty books. They’re engaged, using both established and emerging media to communicate their ideas and accomplishments. DiChristina may be the most media entrenched, given that she runs Scientific American and its digital presence. But Adam Rutherford is another science journalist on Google’s team of judges. As an academic he specializes in the genetics of the eye, and he’s also a filmmaker, author, editor and television presenter. Freshwater ecologist Zeb Hogan is another television personality serving as a Google Science Fair judge, hosting National Geographic’s “Monster Fish.”

Reality television may not at first seem like the kind of endeavor you would expect from Google’s panel of judges. But Hogan is experimenting with new ways to accomplish his scientific goals, another trait these judges have in common. Soyeon Yi, for instance, is a Korean scientist who became an astronaut. Not content with simply going into space, Yi is currently in America getting an MBA to bolster her skill set. Daniel Kraft is a biomedical researcher who has developed a device to harvest bone marrow with minimal invasion, yet he’s also attempted to join Yi by applying for astronaut selection. When he’s not draining marrow or training for space, Kraft serves in the California Air National Guard with an F-16 Fighter Squadron. These judges just aren’t content to rest on their laurels. Last year’s Google Science Fair winner is serving as a judge this year, but Brittany Wenger didn’t stop researching after her 2012 triumph. Instead she extended her research into breast cancer diagnostics by tackling the genetic profiling of leukemia patients as well. She’s only 18 years old.

When we look at these overwhelming achievements, it’s clear Google have criteria in mind when carefully selecting these judges for their Science Fair. Yes, many of the judges are employed by the event’s sponsors (CERN, Lego, National Geographic and Scientific American), but they’re still highly experienced contributors to world progress, who use new media to further their goals and aren’t going to slow down just because of their previous success. Good luck to these judges as they approach the difficult task of choosing only 1 of the 15 young geniuses for the final award. You can throw your opinion in the ring too, since nominations for a “Voter’s Choice” award are open until August 30.

Photo courtesy of: U.S. Department of Energy, “Fermilab Today”

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