and Sharon Noguchi

When Natalie Ng received the call late Tuesday that she had been selected as a finalist for the Intel Science Talent Search 2014, she couldn't contain her excitement.

"The person on the other line must have thought I was crazy because I couldn't get a coherent word out," she said. "I could only mouth the words 'thank you' over and over."

Natalie, 17, a senior at Monta Vista High in Cupertino, worked for more than a year developing a diagnostic tool to help doctors identify breast cancer patients who are at a high risk of developing metastasis -- the spreading of cancer from one organ to another.

She was one of eight Bay Area students on Wednesday who were named finalists in the Intel search, also known as the nation's "junior Nobel Prize." They are among 40 young researchers selected as finalists in the contest, which seeks out the nation's most promising young scientists.

Five finalists, all seniors, are from the South Bay. The other four are Vishnu Shankar of Monta Vista High; Angela Kong of Lynbrook High in San Jose; Charles Liu of Gunn High in Palo Alto; and Sreyas Misra of The Harker School in San Jose.

Three finalists are from San Ramon: Kathy Camenzind and Esha Maiti, both from California High School; and Emily Pang from Dougherty Valley High.

For Kathy, 17, a dinner conversation with her father about lasers inspired an AP chemistry presentation idea that eventually led to her Intel research project.

This past summer the California High student spent seven weeks at Stony Brook University in New York developing more efficient and inexpensive optical tweezers --lasers that can trap microscopic particles that scientists can study without touching.

The equipment is expensive -- the basic one in her lab at the time cost about $20,000. So Kathy wanted to find a way to lower its price by making her own using some spare parts from her lab.

"I thought, 'Oh cool I can actually make something that I learned about in school,'" she said. "If you read and understand the theory behind something you can do it yourself."

She documented her work in an online journal that other students looking to make their own optical tweezers could use as a guide.

"Anybody who has access to a laser, microscope lenses and mirrors could now in theory trap particles," she said. "You don't have to buy them for thousands of dollars."

Though she hasn't put a price tag on her optical tweezers just yet, Kathy hopes the inexpensive equipment will help make lasers more accessible to undergraduate and high school researchers.

Kathy said her research has inspired her to pursue physics or engineering in college.

Among the finalists, 11, or more than one-quarter, are from California, the most of any state. Among the 300 semifinalists, 48 came from California. This year the contest attracted nearly 1,800 entries.

Once sponsored by Westinghouse and now by Intel, the Science Talent Search is one of the oldest national science research contests.

The finalists will gather March 6 to 12 in Washington, D.C., to undergo judging, meet leading scientists, display their research at the National Geographic Society and meet with national leaders.

The first-place winner will receive $100,000 from the Intel Foundation. In addition, the foundation will award $530,000 in runner-up prizes.

Angela said she isn't concerned with her placement in the competition or the money, but instead can't wait to receive critiques and advice from the judges and her peers on where to take her research next and how she can further apply it.

"I'm looking forward to getting to meet these super talented and smart people who are scientific researchers from across the nation," she said. "Being in that environment where everyone is interested in the same science ideas -- I'm really looking forward to that."

Monta Vista senior Vishnu, 17, has been working in a Cal Tech lab. He helped calculate the structure of a protein that could help scientists design drugs to target cardiovascular disease and allergies.

"This honor is a testament to how good my mentors have been in terms of tailoring my ideas and making them more lucid for the paper," Vishnu said. "This opportunity provides a venue for my idea and other people's ideas to be exposed to the public so that they can see what the future of science will be."

Intel Science Talent Search finalists
Natalie Ng of Monta Vista High: Developed a prediction model for long-term breast cancer survival.
Vishnu Shankar of Monta Vista: Calculated the 3-D structure of a molecule involved in cardiovascular disease.
Angela Kong of Lynbrook High: Determined the role of a specific protein in the spread of breast cancer.
Charles Liu of Gunn High: Found a genetic relationship between lupus and systemic sclerosis, a connective tissue disease, that may lead to new therapies.
Sreyas Misra of The Harker School: Developed a low-cost medical-imaging scanner the size of a hand-held tablet.
Kathy Camenzind of California High: Build inexpensive optical tweezers using a low-power laser and microscope in an undergraduate laboratory.
Esha Maiti of California High: Developed a math simulation to predict secondary tumors in cancer patients.
Emily Pang of Dougherty Valley High: Verified the role of certain molecules in the growth or suppression of malignant tumors.