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DNA-Based Steganography Wins Intel Education Award 246

to'c wrote: "17-year-old Viviana Risca wins US$100,000 from Intel for her work in 'DNA-based Steganography.' Talk about combining hot technologies! With a bit of gene-splicing, that next pigeon you clone wouldn't need to carry a message. It would be the message! Full story here." Interesting test message she chose, too.
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DNA-Based Steganography Wins Intel Education Award

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  • by Anonymous Coward
    I would have cloned myself and skipped school.

    You did! But it's your bad luck to be the clone!!

    Ever notice how there's less money in your checking account then you think there should be? That's me ... your original ... buying stuff that I need. So get back to work -- I want to buy some more CD's!

  • by Anonymous Coward
    It's definitely a Public High School. See here []. So much for those who think that public schools are necessarily trash. If you look at the record of past finalists you'll see that a very large percentage are from NY city and Long Island (Port Washington is on LI). Since I live in that area (pardon the local chauvinism) I can tell you that the majority of those finalists came from public schools.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    >With a bit of gene-splicing, that next pigeon you clone wouldn't need to carry a message. It would be the message!

    This would have severe consequences, rippling throughout the IETF. RFCs 1149 and 2549 would have to be completely rewritten.
    RFC 1149 []
    RFC 2549 []

    The preceeding has been a humorous message. Moderate accordingly.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Viviana was an author on the paper, part of a research group from Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York. The other authors were quite senior (one was a professor, the other at least a post-doc, from this story [].
  • So why did Westinghouse give up sponsorship of the contest anyway? I can't imagine that it was just about the money.

    What's next: will Microsoft take over sponsorship of RSI? If that's already happened, don't tell me -- just shoot me now.

    Jeremy (RSI '91, but didn't have a project worth submitting to Westinghouse)
  • So might there be a message in my DNA from those superadvanced but uncommunicative aliens that shaped apes into mankind?
    Maybe a lossily encoded one so that it stands across millenia?

    Something like a fuzzy certificate of a intergalactic patent on human beings? :)
  • Maybe it will make you feel better to know that at least three of them were born outside the US. I stopped counting there, because I am a lazy American white boy. I only read the story because I saw "Viviana", "17", and "hot" in the summary.

  • Changing the way something is represented is the definition of encryption...

    Wrong! Ig0r has already told you: "I think you're using 'encrypting' when you should be using 'encoding'." Changing the way something is represented is the definition of encoding.


  • by aphr0 ( 7423 )
    Is she sexy?
  • She won because she's female. She didn't do anything new or exciting. She took existing technology and just put it together. She didn't innovate at all. The second place kid deserves it more than she does. I hate it when girls get things just to stimulate female interest in technology. If women aren't as good at it, then so be it. They shouldn't win if they aren't as good as the males.
  • I get plenty of day-to-day contact w/ men. Who needs women? Sexy..
  • You should remember that security by obscurity is no security at all.

    If you're going to use steganography, make sure that you're hiding *encrypted* data away.

    The recent shouting in England was all about the courts forcing you to turn over the keys if they find encrypted data in an investigation. If you don't have the key, or you lost the key, off to the pokey you go.

    Steganography when it's done correctly will most likely prevent the authorities from becoming aware of encrypted data at all. But if they do manage to discover it, another layer of encryption will stop them cold.

    Furthermore, encrypted data should look statistically random. They'll have a hell of a time proving that they've got encrypted data and not some kind of random figment of their imagination.

  • What happens? You encode yer bird, teach it to fly to the specific place you want, and then dissect the thing?

    1) The ASPCA is gonna have a FIELD day.
    2) What the hell sort of critter are you going to breed for this? Homing pigeons? Teach it to go home, just once, before you slice it to ribbons?
    3) High ickiness factor here.
  • And I'm sure she did a lot of work on the project. I can work with a bunch of grad students and professors and get papers published too (and I do! Just that I'm an undergrad working with some upperclassmen :P). I would like to know much much of the work done on this project is her own and how much she acted as a 'lab assistant.'

    Doing research and being involved in research are two completely different things.

  • (alas, my poor karma.)
  • Posting these stories does nothing to you if you are a gibbering idiot and your self esteem is crumbling.

    I would suggest therapy, or pursuing positive and constructive activity.

    Okay, I'm sorry; I'm feeding the trolls, and I'm being cruel to those who legitamately suffer from poor self esteem. But I'm in a strange mood, and want to respond to this one.

  • Guess Momma Listen Up shouldn't be expecting grandchildren any time soon, eh? MmmmmHMMMM! I sure do love some Revisionist History.
  • Not only that, but there's also an ST:TNG ep about that.. ;-)
  • Wow! I had no idea that RFCs like this existed! This is really great! And who said that computer people had no humor???

  • She is Romanian. This information, and more, is in the article.
  • Yes,
    1^3 + 12^3 = 1729 and 9^3 + 10^3 = 1729

    but be careful, 1729 is the smallest positive integer that can be represented as the sum of two *positive* cubes in two different ways.
  • i dont wanna come off sounding evil-steriotypical-maleish, but is it just me or did the part of the article saying, "First in her class, Viviana is managing editor of the school's literary magazine, and has won numerous science and writing awards. A native of Romania and a published poet, she enjoys computer programming, painting and badminton, and hopes to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology." sound like a dating service description?

  • Go to google, search with her name... there she is...

  • yeah yeah, we all saw Good Will Hunting

  • And you thought Intel's p3 serial numbers were bad
    Maybe we can give each human a DNA serial number for "better shopping security"
  • Off topic, I know...
  • you don't need a copy of the original.

    You just encode the message in the least signifigant bits of each pixel.

    If the real bit is the desired crypto bit, you leave it. If it is not, then flip the bit.

    To decode the message you just read off the least signifigant bits.

  • I presume by your adamant claims that you
    were a first hand witness to the accounts of
    Rosalind Franklin and Watson/Crick??

    If not, you really have no basis in fact, and your
    claims of women being denied credit (as far as this case is concerned) seems to be nothing more than FUD disguised as righteous indignation.

    just my 2 cents worth.
  • Rob, Hemos, are you reading?

    Any shot at getting her for a Slashdot Interview?

    --Earl Higgins
  • Wouldn't really work.. the message (and the primers) are just more dna pairs (you know, the old TAGCCAGTTGetc). Given such a limited vocabulary to encode in, you'd need a number of pairs for each character in the message.
    You'd need to know not only that there Is a message, but also where to begin decoding (if you start at one point you get 'hello world' start a couple pairs down and get 'rglno9p:f' and the encoding scheme used ('TAGACCATA' == A). If you just scanned the whole thing (which would, with current technology, take a hell of a long time) you'd get probably hundreds of possible messages even if you knew the encoding scheme. Not to mention the possibility that the message itself is encoded.. i don't think this will become an encryption standard, but it could certainly be useful for those messages that just have to be sent securely for military purposes.
  • I'll gladly contribute some money toward a fund that would go for scholarships for young programmers, as long as it had terms I liked. Creating scholarships which recognize other than conventional success or goals is a tough task, because the reason that deserving people are often passed over as 'underachievers' is precisely because it's hard to tell from the outside what in particular makes a particular person deserving of support unless they wear it on their sleeve.

    I'm far from a millionaire, or even a hundred-thousandaire ;), but if a few hundred people gave $100 apiece to establish an interest-bearing fund, there could be money to fund several small scholarships. Maybe not $100,000, though you have to respect Intel for giving that much. Unlike scholarships from the NSA, Intel can't demand that you work for them after school :)

    And I hereby suggest a domain name which has been floating in my head for a bit for an organization built to fund / sustain small scholarships or other funding projects: "" (as in cumulative).

  • Well, the descriptions may sound that way... All the bios of the finalists (I was one) are put together by Intel based on our applications. The application asks many questions about hobbies, interests, membership in clubs, and so on, and the Intel PR people put together the bios based on that. So yes, they don't always come out the way we would prefer to have ourselves described.
  • Notice the second name in what you wrote:

    Clelland, C.T., Risca, Viviana, and Bancroft, C. (1999). Hiding messages in DNA microdots. Nature 399, 533-534

    "Risca, Viviana" would be none other than Viviana Risca, the winner of the Intel Science Talent Search. Same person, same research.

  • Yes, Intel is more or less just footing the bill. But that's what Westinghouse used to do, until two years ago. Science Service is the organization that arranges most of the activities, and has been (as far as I know) since the competition started in 1942.
  • I found it very interesting that so many abstract mathematics projects placed in the top ten. Jayce Getz (from Montana) did the project extending one of Ramanujan's theorems, dealing with partitions. That placed 2nd.

    In 4th place, Sasha Schwartz (from Pennsylvania) worked on coset partitions of Abelian groups.

    And then in 9th place, there was Zach Cohn (from New York) with work on quadratic reciprocity in certain polynomial fields.

    So, that's three abstract mathematics (i.e. number theory and group theory) projects. It surprised me. I thought that the Intel judges were looking for things that had immediate applications that the public could understand. Apparently they weren't. That was a pleasant surprise. I think the math projects were all at a very high level and I'm glad to see them recognized. Of course, all 40 finalists had very good research, and I'm glad I didn't have to try to choose the best among them...

    Anyway, I just thought I would point out that there were several very interesting pure math projects at the competition and they all did very well.
  • The Westinghouse competition became the Intel competition two years ago. So perhaps it would be more correct to simply say "The STS is America's oldest...."

  • Who else feels like they wasted some serious time in high school. Apparently it's not only impossible to keep up with really smart peers...but also really really smart youngun's...
  • > She does attend a U.S. school

    It's Schreiber High School in Port Washington, NY
  • You can enter computer science projects in the STS, just like any other area of science. (I did.) They compete against all the other projects from different fields. The thing is that the project has to be about "computer science" not just programming. There has to be science involved. However, if you're intelligent enough to work on open source projects and make intelligent contributions, you're probably intelligent enough to put a "science" spin on whatever work you did to make it worthy of an STS project.
  • I do agree with what you say here. In fact, I wrote just that in the last sentance of my original comment. I get the feeling you didn't read that far into it.

    Just as a little more anecdotal, and probably invalid, evidence, for 1999, I knew somewhat personally the 4th and 10th place winners in the STS. I can say with confidence that the 10th place person was much more intelligent than the 4th place person. Of course, they were both very intelligent. My original point is just that it's more than intelligence that's judged in this thing. Effort is a huge factor, and the smartest people don't always display the most effort.
  • This work was done, and published, by Dr. Carter Bancroft at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. The girl may have worked in his lab, but the work is his. When the media covers contests like this, they make it seem as if the kids are the ones who thought up all these fantastic ideas. Really, the kids are nothing more than lab technicians (I know, because a Westinghouse student was in my thesis lab)--they do some work, but no actual thinking. It's good that they have a chance to pursue their interest in science, but what they do shouldn't be mistaken for genius.
  • While I applaud what these high school students have done, as well as all of their hard work, I still have to agree with the AC who wrote:

    I'm a high school Junior who is interested in cryptography and OS programming and a whole bunch o' stuff. How can ppl actually do such major research? or know enough to do it? or even have resources to get to this equiptment? I'd like to do these experiment and research but ppl like me are limited in what they can do. I don't understand how ppl at such an age can have the ability to do things.

    I really agree with this statement, and I am not even in high school anymore! I wonder what exactly this girl did? For her peers who won the other prizes, at least one can guess what was done and how it might have been done, but how was she able to do what she did?

    Did she really splice the DNA? Somehow I doubt it - I mean, in order to encode the DNA, she would need not only a way to splice it (which, as I understand it, isn't extremely hard. I think that part can be done using a small lab setup, because most of the work is done in a test tube, via RNA - but in a particular predetermined sequence of base pairs?), but also a way to sequence the DNA as well (in order to check the encoding, to verify it is valid).

    Or am I way off base (no pun intended) here? Someone, please correct me if I am completely wrong, because I would love to know how one can do this in thier own home (or at least a small lab)!

    I can only think of one way she could have done it, and wouldn't have needed a lot of equipment (in fact, she would only need a computer):

    1. We know what the base nucleotides are - Adenine (A), Guanine (G), Cytosine (C), and Thymine (T).
    2. These bases form pairs which make up the DNA helix ladder strand - pairs like A-T or C-G.
    3. The pairs in the ladder could be encoded to represent a binary stream - ie, A-T equals 0 and C-G equals 1. More complex encoding could be done by using other base pairs.
    4. With a computer, write a program that can take a message, and spits out "DNA sequences" of base pairs for keys and can encode a third "DNA sequence" of base pairs with the message using those keys.
    5. Theorize how such DNA strands could be inserted and used to convey "secret" information via another living organism.

    This is the only way I can see a high school student doing such a thing in his or her home. I don't really know how one would be able to do this stuff "by hand" with real DNA (In other words, how do you build a DNA strand, by hand, one base pair at a time, in a predetermined sequence? Can this even be done with current technology?).

    If this was all that was done, then it would still leave the exercise in the realm of theory (the theory that one could of encode base pairs in a DNA strand to convey secret information). If a student did such a thing, it would be interesting, but would it warrant a $100,000 prize? I can see where actually doing the sequencing and splicing of real DNA would, but not a simulation...

    Can someone enlighten me?
  • by cr0sh ( 43134 )
    I read a little further down, and found out the Miss Risca was working with two others on this: Carter Bancroft and Catherine Taylor Clelland.

    What is strange is that no mention of this is given in the articles about the prize, which makes it sound like Viviana was doing independent research, when in fact, she was part of a team who seems to have been doing research for at least a year on the subject (see this BBC article [], which is dated June 10,1999).

    From what I have seen, which has mentioned these two other researchers, Viviana has gotten "low billing", so to speak. It makes me wonder what her role in the research is. She must have done some work, enough to understand what was going on, to do a science fair writeup.

    I still wonder about this prize, though. I mean, she did all of this, with access to the equipment and such, and people who REALLY knew what they were doing. How did she get on this team? Did she go up to them and say "Hey, I like the stuff you are doing, and it interests me - can I be a part of your team, and help you out?". This whole thing just sounds odd - it would be a totally different thing if the work she did was performed on her own, in her own home or at the school lab. But she obviously didn't - she had access to a lab with the right equipment and to others with more knowledge working in the field. How many of the other students had that option? How many independent adult "backyard" researchers have this option? It is almost like she was more apt to get the prize by who she knew, and not by what she did.

    Of course, I guess since that is how things seem to work in the real world, maybe she got some good experience after all?
  • I do recall seeing this somewhere as well ..
  • WOO HOO! I got an English lesson for free from an AC!
  • I was wondering that too, because there is no way a regular public high school would have the neccasary equipment to interact with genes the way she did. I guess she could have done it at a local university, but again, I'm wondering how she would gain access to the equipment neccasary to do that stuff (I'm assuming that the equipment is fairly expensive and complicated)
  • About the valedictorian part, I agree whole heartedly. The way that kind of thing is calculated at my school is so screwed up, taht some of the smartest people I know have no chance of becoming the validictoran. It's SOLEY based on how many honors/AP classes you took (assuming you get a A in every course, every semester, which isn't TOO hard to do, and which quite a few people, including me, do). True, they are hard workers, but the person currently in one of the top spots is one of the last I'd pick to be validitictoran out of all the smart people in our school.
  • I can see it now: Mother travelling with her newborn infant is arrested for exporting arms outside of the US. She apparently encrypted a message inside the DNA of her child. . .
  • The medium is the message... is the pigeon...

  • rapt / wrapped

    That was one of the better puns I've seen in a long time.

  • c'mon people. that was funny. :-)
  • The contribution is being able to locate the message in the DNA -that's where the primers come in. It's a simple pre/postprocessing step to make the hidden message conform to whatever statistics you want.

    A more sagacious question is _do the primers_ conform to the relevant statistics? Well, punk, do they?
  • Sounds like my kind of chick! Oh wait, didn't say anything about reading SlashDot, nevermind. At any rate, I don't see myself at MIT next year. Maybe my masters...

    On a more on-topic note, any idea what she is planning on studying in school? Computer science and biochemistry would seem like obvious choices, but who knows. At any rate, I commend her for her efforts.



  • Using SGI computers to simulate the M&Ms
    of course ;-)

  • A variation of the idea could be used to insert copyright text or whatever at the start of your own original genetic sequences.. Heh.
    Organism felis.domesticus v-ig318 build 3 genetic code copyright (c) 2000 inGen, Inc. Unauthorized use of copyrighted, non-naturally-occuring code is prohibited. Contains visual cortex code from the University of California at Berkeley.
    Organism drosophilia melanogaster base-315j+joehacker20000315c - Magnetic sensory sequences copyright Joe Hacker 2000. This code is released under the GNU Genetic Public License ...
    Just use standard, known header sequences that both tell any biological processes to skip this chunk of DNA while making it easy to locate the text. :)
  • 100,000$ US would last for aprox 20 years, without any form of interest or savings program (also not taking into account inflation), at most Canadian universities assuming 8,000$ Canadian is spent per year (average residence + fees + food + "small" disposably budget). Why get a masters from MIT when you can get a Ph.D in several things from the U of C? :-)

    US$100,000 is far more then is needed in many US universities. In 1992 a semester at the University of Maryland (for Maryland residents) cost under $2,000. I don't know what the current prices for state-subsidised universities is, but it isn't unreasonable to expect the price has gone up a lot, but I doubt it is all that diffrent from the CA prices.

    On the other hand many of the top Universities are not public funded (many are), the US budget is irrelevent to them. The privately funded Universities are expensave to go to because they are expensave to run. The continue to exist because some of the people with money to spend on their children's (or their own, or others') education thinks they are worth it. Doesn't CA have private Universities? Or are they all state-subsidised?

  • isn't the Westinghouse competition older?

    Nope, they're exactly the same age...

    ...because they're the same competition. Here's an Intel press release [] saying:

    The Intel Science Talent Search (STS) is in the business of making dreams come true and opening new doors for young scientists. This nationwide competition - America's oldest and most highly regarded pre-college science contest -- has for the last 58 years helped the nation find and encourage talented high school seniors to pursue careers in science, math, engineering and medicine. The competition was previously sponsored by Westinghouse Electric Corporation. For 57 years the Science Talent Search has been administered by Science Service, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C.
  • I visited the competition Sunday afternoon. I received an invitation in the mail a month ago.

    Viviana was very personable and explained her project to our 14 year old very well. While she is obviously very talented and has a cool project, I actually would have rated several other projects higher for research, experimentation, difficulty, and innovation.

    At least 3/4 of the projects were amazing. Robert Wang's project was particularly impressive for a 15 year old from Arkansas. (There were two finalists age 15, the rest were 17 or 18.) He had come up with two useful and apparently innovative 3D detail scaling and visibility culling algorithms that he had implemented in C++ on Windows with an Open/GL demo. He's been programming since he was 10. I suggested he contribute the source to one of the Linux game projects. Scaled for his age, it was impressive.

    The most impressive projects, to me, were those that appeared to have broken new ground and actually extended human knowledge sucessfully.

  • This is old news. I've been encoding the DeCSS algorithm in the DNA of the apples I grow on my farm.

    Sure, people might be forced to take DeCSS off the web - but have you ever heard of a food recall based on information?
  • Vegetarian diet and cold weather killed him? Hmmmm. I would have thought it was a combination of crappy medicine and microscopic life forms. Remember folks, most of us are alive today for one reason: we figured out how to battle the bugs. Poor Ramanujan lived before all that. Sorry, rant off.

    The real reason that I'm posting is that Ramanujan was a VERY SERIOUS LOVER OF PI. He memorized many many digits, and he invented the Ramanujan series which calculates PI pretty quickly.

    And since it was 3.14 March 14th yesterday, that seems appropriate.
  • > Hardy says that the number of the taxi he road over in, 1729, wasn't very interesting.

    [export associativity="free"]

    Reminds me of something I saw a week or two ago (can't remember where), about a claim that there can be no "smallest uninteresting number", because that very fact makes it interesting.

    Which tempts you toward an inductive proof that all numbers are interesting (because there can't be a smallest uninteresting one). But a bit of a paradox arises if you do claim that induction, because they can't all claim status as the smallest.

    [export associativity=]

  • The article said that her family immigrated from Romania 8 years ago - therefore the bulk of her education must have been in the US. Could it be that her family is paying better attention to her education than most?
  • Yes as a matter of fact, Microsoft will be sponsoring RSI in 2001. They're going to pass out really lousy keyboards and square mice to all the participants and see how long it takes for them to get CTS.

    It's all a big plot to sell more Microsoft Natural keyboards :)


    "You can't shake the Devil's hand and say you're only kidding."

  • I guess most immigration agents aren't going to check subdermal bacteria for data pertaining to National Security for at least another year or two at the most...
  • Hmmm... you've touched on a long-standing criticism of the STS here. No, the equipment was not the school's. She attended a special summer research program where she worked in real laboratories with real scientists. The "elitist ring" you describe would certinly be argued true by a whole bunch of people. It can be argued that today, it's just about impossible to be an STS finalist without attending some kind of extracurricular research program like she did. (She happened to go one of the very best, but there are others.) Doing research at the level that the STS expects without access to real equipment and real labs is extrelemy difficult, unless you go for pure math or CS. In the past, you would have had a harder time arguing the elitist point of view (refer to the movie/book October Sky) but now, it's hard to deny it. Just look at the list of finalists' project titles and see how many look like they had to be done in special programs.

    Now, making special research programs effectively mandatory may not be such a bad thing. The problem comes in the price: many of them cost money to get in to, often thousands of dollars. (I was lucky enough to get an fellowship where they paid me.) That adds a economic advantage into the mix. Admittance to the programs is often based on things that might be economically influenced also. The net effect is to close off the competition to a whole lot of very intelligent people.

    Having said that, I'd like to add my personal feelings about the STS. It's my belief (so far without rigourous argument) that the people who succeed at the STS are the same types of people who are valedictorians. If you haven't been in high school in the past 5-10 years, you might have a slightly different picture than I do. Basically, these people who achieve the most are not always the most intelligent. They are the hardest workers and the most consciencious students. They are smarter than the average, but they aren't often the smartest people in the school. Of course, I admit that there are always exceptions: I know Viviana a little bit (I go to school a few minutes away from her) and she most definitely _is_ the smartest person in her school, and probably many of the surrounding ones too.

    [Sorry if I rambed a bit, I have a lot to say, and I'm a bit bitter about my whole STS experience :) ]
  • I stopped reading when I came to this description of the winner, she "is the third youngest woman in the last seven years to win the top prize".

    In other words, she is a pretty average winner of the prize. Maybe a sports writer was temping in the science section that day...

  • Actually, the reason A) you are wrong, B) I was wrong below, and C) This is actually a really cool idea, rather than a simple application of stenography is all the same.

    I don't remember all the right terms, but the way it works is that you know the exact sequence before and after your message, which could be encoded on one small part of thousands of similar DNA strands. You then manufacture the complimentary nucleotide sequences of the prelude and postlude strings in mass, tag them with some flourecent molecules or something, mix it in with the DNA, do some more magic, and they automatically line up to the right sequences. Rinse the excess, hit it with some UV, and look for the flourescing DNA molecule.

    In computer terms, this works because nature has given us a mechanism to do a constant-string grep on DNA many orders of magnitude faster than we can do a linear scan.

    The drawback is that if someone finds an equally novel way to search for something a little more ambigious (a molecular NDFA/regexp matcher!) then you are hosed. This is very much like RSA--if large composite numbers are easily factorable, it is not secure, but in the mean time it is a really cool algorithm. And it is very cool, though perhaps a little impractical for everyday use.
  • Perhaps she should go to a Canadian college then. US Universities are .. insanely expensive, due to the US budget people deciding that military spending is better than subsidizing the education of its citizens.

    100,000$ US would last for aprox 20 years, without any form of interest or savings program (also not taking into account inflation), at most Canadian universities assuming 8,000$ Canadian is spent per year (average residence + fees + food + "small" disposably budget). Why get a masters from MIT when you can get a Ph.D in several things from the U of C? :-)

    Of course, with proper investment, the girl could come to Canada, and retire around age 40 with such a head-start towards "critical mass" with her money. Read "The Wealthy Barber" if you want to know more about this :-) (It's a Canadian finance book)
  • Try sending them email. For the RSI students, just finger and you'll probably be able to fine them.
  • I agree that what you say about valedictorian is often true.

    However, every school has a valedictorian. Tons of kids get double 800s on (P)SATs. Yet, only 40 are selected as Westinghouse semifinalists and only ~50 (Americans) are selected for RSI each year. It takes much more (and not necessarily either) to be honored by either of these programs. They had to do something that distinguished them amongst a large group of smart and accomplished young peope. Neither ITS's or RSI's selections are perfect, but both try very hard to look beyond simplistic measures like GPA and test scores. Still there are many deserving students who aren't selected by either. Just because you haven't yet distinguished yourself yet, doesn't mean you're not worthy, but it does mean you are unlikely to be considered by either. However, most of those that are selected are much more than your average 1600 valedictorian.

    For some reason the press likes to mention these kinds of things about the students for which it is true. News reporter often doesn't understand or know how to quantify things like working late hours in a lab, amassing tons of background knowledge, and then combining them in a flash of insight. So they write something like you read. Please don't attack the kid.

  • >My concern was rather the curious implication that the scientific world, in this example at least, seems to have no problems with
    >the idea that one opportunity, deserved and well exploited, can lead to another, even bigger achievement, which would have been
    >completely unreachable normally.

    Yes, this is generally the way science works. Do you want random people using the Hubble Space Telescope, if they haven't first demonstrated that they know how to plan observations, analyze data, and do good science? Before you are entrusted to make good use of 10 orbits of Hubble Space Telescope time, you make good use of 1. Before you make an observation with Hubble, you will have used a serious ground based research observatory. Before you expect to get observing time on a four meter telescope, you better have done good research with a one meter class telescope. Before you get funding for oyur own research project, you first gain experience working with more experienced scientists, as a post-doc and/or grad student. If you want to get into a good grad school, you better have done well as an undergrad. If you want to get into a good undergraduate school, you'd be well advised to be a good student in high school.

    My point is, yes, there are concerns about society becoming increasingly fragmented by wealth leading to knowledge leading to power leading to more wealth. It is unfortunate to see silly corellations such as race and wealth stay entrenched in society.

    However, being able to spend your life conducting scientific research is a great privilege, that our society awards to a select few. It only makes sense that before someone uses precious resources such as a research labs, telescopes, or graduate students, that they have distinguished themselves at smaller things.

    To whom much is given, much is expected. Some people still manage to suprise us with the fruits of their labor.

  • >(a) the price was awarded to somebody who already had access to nonstandard equipment (giving the price a bit of an elitarian ring)

    Yes, and no. She was selected to participate in a summer research program (RSI, see more info in previous post) based on her very impressive motivation and intellect. She made the most of this opprotunity and did some very good research.

    So, yes, she did come from the intellectually elite. There may be correlations with other kinds of elitism, but those did not earn her the opprotunity to use fancy equipment. And I can assure you she is a very nice person. She strives to be a good person, just as much as a good scientist.

  • Hehe, sorry, just my raging hormones talking here -- just how I get about smart young women ;)
    but anyway, if anyone's interested in a picture here ya go [].

    The following sentence is true.
  • "The Intel STS is America's oldest, and most prestigious, pre-college science scholarship competition, often considered the "Junior Nobel Prize." This year, Intel has increased award scholarships and equipment from $330,000 to $1.25 million."

    First off, big respect and good on all the participants, and Intel. Encouraging young people in scientific endeavour is a Good Thing, and my respect and congratulations to all the individuals who worked hard and took part. I hope everybody got positive results out of taking part.

    Here comes the rant, switch off now if you don't want it...

    "Junior Nobel Prize" ...err, come on Intel, that is an *international* prize. Sounds like this is a US only competition. Easy with the hype there. Better still - a challenge - make it an international prize! Why not open up this competition to schools across the planet? Now that would be a great competition, it truly would be a Junior Nobel Prize. Definitely a good thing.

    (rant over!)

  • Schreiber High School is a Public HS, its the only HS in the Port Washington School district. Since I live on Long Island also, one of our local newspapers, newsday has an article about this as well, reach it here []. It also includes information on two other finalists, who are both from Long Island as well.
  • The article says she goes to Paul D. Schreiber Senior High School in Port Washington, N.Y which from information on the New York State Elementary, Middle, Secondary, and Continuing Education (EMSC []) website is a public school. It is in the Port Washington Union Free School District [] which is listed Port Washington UFSD in the link provided.
  • Yeah, I saw Good Will Hunting too. =)
  • The problem with DNA is that it's a real pain to sequence. Sequencing large amounts of DNA is a nontrivial task. Therefore, her message would be EXTREMELY well hidden. Once sequencing technology improves, the situation changes, and you are correct that a simple analysis would find the message.
  • "If everyone knows that there's DNA in that there pigeon, it makes it a lot easier to find than if they don't even know that you're transmitting DNA via rabies-infected fowl."

    That would present quite a challenge, especially since rabies only infects mammals.

    I guess it all depends on exactly how much DNA tampering you're willing to do...

    "Another favorite steganographic method of mine is to encode data into graphic images, for example, taking a bitmapped image and using a key to encode data onto each pixel, say by incrementing the red RGB value of each pixel by 1 where appropriate. It would be exceedingly difficult to detect that a message even contained data, let alone extracting it without the key."

    Now, that is interesting. Of course, if you have a pristine copy of the original image, couldn't you just get the message by using some diff-type method, or does this method have a higher security-to-obscurity ratio than you give it credit for?


  • Will the UK government now need to extend the RIP legislation to include this technology *lol* I wait with bated breath .....

    Instead of encrypted e-mails, will I now be able to pass a genetically modified goldfish to my KGB controller each month, right under the noses of MI.5 ? What legislation will the UK government pass then to tap my goldfish ?

    I am really tempted to send a link for this article to my MP, to see what confusion it causes ......
  • It seems to be that this technology would work equally well using modern technology, i.e. a computer, and would be far simpler to implement. Can anyone explain? I suppose that it would take longer to crack using DNA molecules?
  • Hardy wrote a wonderful little book "A Mathematician's Apology" ("AMA") where he recounts his experiences working with the top number theorists of the day. I recall a anecdote regarding Ramanujan in AMA where he goes to visit Ramanujan when the Indian is sick. Hardy says that the number of the taxi he road over in, 1729, wasn't very interesting. Ramanujan says "Oh no, that is the smallest integer that can be represented as the sum of two cubes in two different ways."

  • FWIW Watson and Crick did nothing to cover up Ms. Franklin's contribution to discovering the the double-helical structure of DNA. In fact, they very often acknowledge her role. The problem stems from the fact that she did not receive the Nobel prize along with Watson and Crick. Why? Because by the time Watson and Crick were nominated Ms. Franklin had already died and the Nobel committee does not (even to this day) give out posthumous awards. What did Ms. Franklin die of? Apparently of long-term exposure to x-rays (as was often the case with x-ray crystallographers before they learned to better respect radiation).
  • Now I can encode my pet snake's offspring with all my passwords, if I can get a good deal on the rather pricey process.
  • With a bit of gene-splicing, that next pigeon you clone wouldn't need to carry a message. It would be the message!

    Definite proof that the medium is the message!!!!


  • by sdr ( 11050 ) on Tuesday March 14, 2000 @06:48PM (#1202188)

    Just to correct a few details - Ramanujan was not an "untouchable". He was a bramhin - that is from the highest cast. He was also in reasonable good health while in India. But he was poor and he was uneducated. He became ill after going to Cambridge due to his strict vegeterian diet and the cold weather.

    The British mathematician was G.H. Hardy. For more about Ramanujan and a non-technical description of his work on partitions check out Robert Kanigel's book The Man Who Knew Infinity. A more technical introduction is Hardy's Twelve Lectures on Ramanujan or The Collected Works of Ramanujan.

  • by PhiRatE ( 39645 ) on Tuesday March 14, 2000 @06:29PM (#1202189)
    My hat off to you and the other winners, just reading the summarised list of achievements with your project information on that article indicates not only that you are very gifted, but that you have the determination to utilise those gifts, a rarer thing than it might appear. I look forward to seeing what you all do in the future, and I hope it still manages to balance well enough that you all have fun too :)

  • by Convergence ( 64135 ) on Tuesday March 14, 2000 @05:34PM (#1202190) Homepage Journal
    To respond to both this message and the sibling message. It doesn't matter if the statistics are normal. In a human, there are a few billion base-pairs in DNA. If the secret is encoded at some unknown position, it might be hard to extract without the primers, but there are ONLY a few billion positions it could be in.. So this looks like cryptography with a 32-bit key.

    This is much like the 'secret' cypher where you encode each word of some plaintext message as a list of page, line, and word numbers in some arbitrary book. 12-3-5 (page 12, line 3, word 5). The book itself acts like the key. Unfortunately, this isn't secure as there aren't so many books out there. I can just try each one till I find one that gives a reasonable message, say a 20-bit key.

    On the other hand, this is a news report, the story might have just 'skipped over' this issue and Viviana thought over it and has a solution. Or maybe not, don't forget that good steganography is damned hard. I ask you, how would you try to 'hide' some secret message so that somebody couldn't even detect it?
  • by Dirtside ( 91468 ) on Tuesday March 14, 2000 @04:43PM (#1202191) Journal
    Because the pair of primers provides a trillion trillion options, she concludes that the code is essentially unbreakable.

    Only in the same way that public-key encryption is unbreakable, in that you can't brute-force it in any reasonable amount of time. However this doesn't rule out any weaknesses in the method itself, such as being able to statistically detect the desired data segment, etc.

    Also note that steganography in general relies on obscurity; in other words, "Secrets are best kept when no one knows that secrets are being kept." (Nigel Calder, Einstein's Universe) If everyone knows that there's DNA in that there pigeon, it makes it a lot easier to find than if they don't even know that you're transmitting DNA via rabies-infected fowl.

    Another favorite steganographic method of mine is to encode data into graphic images, for example, taking a bitmapped image and using a key to encode data onto each pixel, say by incrementing the red RGB value of each pixel by 1 where appropriate. It would be exceedingly difficult to detect that a message even contained data, let alone extracting it without the key.

  • by Syn.Terra ( 96398 ) on Tuesday March 14, 2000 @05:34PM (#1202192) Homepage Journal

    "Also, the week is not all science - Intel provided a web center in the hotel with lots of nice computers equipped with Quake 3, so we could have big multiplayer deathmatches over the LAN."

    See? The government organizations were right! Playing Quake and other violent video games does make you become violent, neurotic, and make you want to blow up your...

    Oh wait, these kids won what award? How prestegious was it? Intel says they'll be the nations leaders and innovators?

  • by danb35 ( 112739 ) on Tuesday March 14, 2000 @04:37PM (#1202193) Homepage
    I can bet she is not a product of the U.S. Public Education System.

    I don't know about that. Paul D. Schreiber High School is part of the Port Washington Union Free School District, according to the 1999 profile. [] I can't tell for sure, but that kind of sounds like a public school to me...

  • by Bert Peers ( 120166 ) on Tuesday March 14, 2000 @04:36PM (#1202194) Homepage
    I'm a bit confused here. The article seems to suggest that the DNA encoding was actually executed, instead of merely being theoretically described/proposed. Um, the school I was in when I was 17 most definitely did not have DNA-handling equipment. Does this mean that (a) the price was awarded to somebody who already had access to nonstandard equipment (giving the price a bit of an elitarian ring), or (b) DNA juggling is already common place enough that highschools carry the stuff as basic equipment ? Both options seem a bit of food for thought to me...
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 14, 2000 @07:58PM (#1202195)

    here we have (some of) the most outstanding and promising kids in highschools in the US (or didn't I get the meaning of this award). They will probably even be among the best in their year at Harvard/MIT or whatever. And they did some excellent and truly impressive work.
    They deserve credit and appreciation instead of bitching about this or that detail of their work or whining "If I would have had these toys to play I would have done what he/she did". Pure envy... If you're be capable of doing cool stuff, nobody at your local university will leave you standing outside.
    Seeing stuff like this make me profoundly happy and say about Intel what you want, but this is a service to society (and their PR-dept. :) ).
    The winners and most probably a lot of non-winners have shown how cool doing research (or hacking in the true sense of the work, which is essentially the same) is and they should get all that support to pursue whatever they're capable of doing.

    Nevertheless: critical and rational analysis of their work a much appreciated way to show respect (in my experience).

    So sit back, relax and
    #define BITCHMODE 0
    for once.


  • by billstewart ( 78916 ) on Tuesday March 14, 2000 @10:38PM (#1202196) Journal
    The "only a few billion" comment is good, and some of the other poster's comments about it being much easier to find the sequence you're looking for by searching for the start token rather than having to sequence the whole mess are bang on as well.

    The solution for securing steganography is straightforward - it's to say "it's not crypto, it
    's just stego, but that can still be pretty effective" rather than saying "there's a trillion trillion possible sequences in this billion starting points, so nobody'd ever find it". So rather than hiding a plaintext message, which somebody might find, you encrypt your message with a real crypto algorithm, producing something that looks like random noise, and then if the underlying substrate you're hiding it in (whether its pictures, sounds, or DNA) looks enough like random bits, you're done; otherwise you make a model of the substrate and transform your cyphertext into that space. (Peter Wayner's paper on Mimic Functions has a really good discussion of this.) For an application like this, just getting the right ratio of nucleotides may be enough, or one or two levels of Markov chain beyond it. (Plus make sure the DNA isn't from a really popular mouse clone or whatever that somebody might have already sequenced :-)
    Then it does become much harder to find the cyphertext, which makes cracking it much much harder.

    Dirtside said:
    Because the pair of primers provides a trillion trillion options, she concludes that the code is essentially unbreakable.
    Only in the same way that public-key encryption is unbreakable, in that you can't brute-force it in any reasonable amount of time.

    and randombit said something similar.

    No, it's much different than that. Public-key encryption is exponentially hard, while this is just linear in the length of the chains. Computer-Crunching through a billion starting points looking for English-like sequences is a few minutes' work, though the chemical work in sequencing the whole mess is much slower. By contrast, it's easy to make a factoring job taking longer than the current age of the universe, just by making the keys a few hundred bits longer.

  • Surprisingly common form of steganography, really. There is *absolutely* no obfuscation actually hidden in the data itself--it's literally plaintext encoded as simple entries in the DNA sequence. The security comes from the fact that its surrounded by a significant amount of difficult to search(without knowledge of the correct primers) of non-secret information.

    Essentially, you're talking about a symmetric "location" secret protecting unencrypted content within a significant amount of data.

    Such techniques are actually used quite commonly as countermeasures against legally mandated discovery procedings--a large corporation(Microsoft or Tobacco companies in particular) is sued for its memo records; tens of thousands of boxes of unrelated material are delivered to the suing party on the presumption that they will hide the one "smoking gun" memo that will seriously damage the corporation.

    In the inevitable arms race that follows, the entire mass of data gets OCR'd and searched for critical keywords. That solves the legal issues, but without an efficient "OCR" method that can quickly sequence a chromosome into its underlying data, this student's steganographic method is extraordinarily effective.

    However, should such a technology be created, the size of the "keyspace" becomes drastically shortened: Apparently, the entire human genome will fit into six hundred megabytes--this is quite a bit of data, but it's not "trillions and trillions" of possibilities. A simple statistical analysis tool will reveal *any* non-natural data, as nCipher revealed when they showed that a cryptographic private key will stick out even within 2GB of fluff data--it's *TOO* random.

    What'd really blow me away is if Viviana was able to follow up this fascinating research with an implementation of Public Key Steganography. There was a paper referenced on Counterpane that talked about this; essentially it hides data in such a manner that the ensteganographer(and thus, anyone other than the recipient of the hidden message) cannot determine the exact location of their own message. The way I'd imagine it working, you'd mutate a virus such that it delivered a given message to a location dependant upon not the data being delivered but some publically available key. That key would essentially be a one way hash of bioreceptors that the virus should attach itself to, and you'd essentially have a restriction that the virus would not infect any cell that did not possess those specific bioreceptors. An attacker would need to sequence not only the global DNA sequence for changes but each possible type of cell that could have been modified to contain the secret, whereas the message reader would know exactly what types of cells to search--viola, your asymmetric primitive. Maybe you'd only find a link to the appropriate primer, or possibly your entire message, but you'd have your public key steganography implemented with biological methods.


    Yours Truly,

    Dan Kaminsky
    DoxPara Research
  • Just to expand on the previous comment...

    I did not do my work for the Intel STS (I was the 6th place winner) in a laboratory, but I have worked in a university lab in the past. There are many high school students who do research in well-equipped labs. It isn't an unfair advantage - these opportunities are available to most people who have enough initiative and intelligence to pursue them.

    This year (if I remember correctly) there were 4 Intel finalists who participated in RSI (if I remember right, it was Feng Zhang, Viviana, Sasha Schwartz, and Elizabeth Williams). A few other finalists were in other summer research programs.

    Also, I recall Viviana saying that she ordered the DNA from a lab somewhere that will manufacture DNA with a given base-pair sequence... Apparently it isn't too expensive.

    I hope this clarifies some things...

  • by mreece ( 38002 ) <mreece AT midway DOT uchicago DOT edu> on Tuesday March 14, 2000 @04:57PM (#1202199) Homepage
    I was one of the participants in this competition - I finished in 6th place with a project on adaptive wavelet methods for fluid dynamics problems. (I'm Matt Reece from Louisville, Kentucky).

    First of all, I would like to say that if anyone reading this is a high school student considering entering this competition, do it. It is very much worth the time you spend on your research if you can become a finalist. All 40 finalists get $5000, a laptop (650 MHz Pentium III), and a trip to D.C. where Intel pays for everything - very nice expensive dinners, meetings with Nobel laureates... it's an incredible program. The best part was definitely meeting the other finalists, though. They were all wonderful people and I have had a great week... Don't think these people are just science nerds (not that that's a bad thing, mind you). They're very well-rounded. Many speak foreign languages, play musical instruments, sports, etc.

    Also, the week is not all science - Intel provided a web center in the hotel with lots of nice computers equipped with Quake 3, so we could have big multiplayer deathmatches over the LAN. I also played cards more in the past week than I have in months, and generally just spent a lot of time hanging out with the other finalists.

    Anyway, to get on to some of the comments the rest of you have made about Viviana's project. First, I will say that I'm not as familiar with her work as I am with some of the other projects.

    She does attend a U.S. school - I think it's a public one but I'll have to look that up later. Personally, I attend a public magnet school (duPont Manual High School) and I know many of the other finalists do attend public schools.

    It would probably be best if Viviana responded to your comments about DNA steganography, as I'm not an expert in the area. Still, the project did seem to be very well done and she did an excellent job of presenting it to the public.

    As far as your comment about open source programmers... If an open source project involved a new algorithm or some other method that could be applied to science, then it would certainly stand a chance in the Intel competition. My wavelet code is open source, although at this point I haven't implemented enough features to make it very useful.

    Also, you might be interested to know that the judging is not solely based on the research. The first stages are based on a research paper - out of about 1500 applicants, 300 semifinalists were chosen and then from those 300, forty were chosen as finalists.

    The finalist judging is based on three 15-minute interviews in which judges ask questions related to science in general. Some questions are straightforward tests of scientific knowledge, others are more open-ended questions meant to see how well you can think. Some of the questions are things that no one knows...

    These judging interviews took place on Thursday and Friday (the 9th and 10th). The next two days, March 11th and 12th, involved the public presentations, where we set up display boards at the National Academy of Science and talked about our research with judges, scientists, and anyone else who showed up. The judges talked to students on Saturday, and from what I understand had made all their decisions just before the dinner at Mr. K's (great Chinese restaurant) Saturday night. The winners were announced Monday evening.

    So anyway, judging is based initially on the research, but the final awards are also based on general scientific knowledge and also ability to communicate that knowledge to others. The emphasis on communication is also evident in the Seaborg award, given to the student who best displays an excitement about science and a willingness to share that excitement - that award went to Eugene Simuni, who finished 5th. His work was all the more amazing because he's only lived in the U.S. for two years (he came here from Russia) and yet he's better at communicating science to the general public (in English, a language that he more or less taught himself) than most or maybe all of the rest of us who have been speaking English our whole lives.

    Well, there is much more I could say, but I just wanted to give you a better idea of what this competition is all about. It's a great program, and I would recommend it to anyone. If you have any questions about the Intel STS, feel free to ask me.
  • by billstewart ( 78916 ) on Tuesday March 14, 2000 @04:59PM (#1202200) Journal
    I don't know how much of this is the reporting, either by the judges or the press, vs. how much is the winner's understanding of the technology involved (it sounds like it's her mistake, and the judges didn't understand it.) The idea of stashing messages in DNA is cool, and doing the actual work to build it is definitely cool stuff for a high-school student. But the crypto isn't correct.

    Steganography is the art of hiding messages in things, where they aren't likely to be noticed, either because nobody'd think to look there, or because there's too much other junk for your message to stand out, or because you've done the work to make your message look similar to the background noise. The classic example is hiding a message in the low-order bits of a digitized photo image or a sound file, where they don't affect the output much, though they're usually visible if anybody looks.

    Stashing a secret message in a bunch of a DNA has a good chance of "they wouldn't look there", but if they *did* decide to look in the bunch of DNA, a message like "JUNE6_INVASION: NORMANDY" probably has different enough statistics from the rest of the DNA around it that it might stand out. Sure, it's much more obvious to the intended recipient, who's looking for the specific start and end "primer" sequences, and it's also much more obvious to someone who knows the alphabet of nucleotides she's using to represent letters (as opposed to having to guess from entropy, where there'd be too many false positives.) But the conclusion "Because the pair of primers provides a trillion trillion options, she concludes that the code is essentially unbreakable" is insupportable - If you encode your message in a way that has similar statistics to the background signals/noise, you can hide it pretty well, but she's implying that straight plaintext is also unfindable there, and it's not, any more than hiding it in the low order bits of a picture is.

    Nice work anyway, and it lets people make lots of entertaining comments about "Computer Viruses" :-)

  • by Darby ( 84953 ) on Tuesday March 14, 2000 @04:52PM (#1202201)
    He came up with an extension to a mathematical theorem by Ramanujan. This is pretty impressive since most people have no idea what that guy was talking about ;-)

    If you don't know, Ramanujan was an Indian mathematician who was born an "untouchable".
    He was poor, sickly and almost totally uneducated.
    He recreated a large portion of modern mathematics independently. He wrote to a British mathematician whose name escapes me with a lot of his work included. At first glance it looked like all previously proven theorems and so he disregarded it and threw it away. He started thinking about it and realized there were many novel approaches and new ideas so he brought him over to England and set him up at the university. He died a few years later due basically to poor health attributable to a really shitty life, but his work blew open doors into mathematical realms we are still trying to probe.

    So, in long ;-) , this kid might be a candidate for a Fields medal in the future.
  • by yuriwho ( 103805 ) on Tuesday March 14, 2000 @09:26PM (#1202202)
    JunkDNA's post nails the issue. There are too many high-rated posts criticising the cryptography used here. Cryptography has nothing to do with it. The message is easy to read but it is hidden in a large volume of DNA sequence. The human genome project (a worldwide effort) has been working for years to sequence the entire genome...still unfinished. She proposes to bury the message in the genome of an organism. To try and use your sophisticated cryptography breaking algorithyms to "break the code" you first would have to sequence all the DNA present in your suspect message DNA. Given that coded DNA could be stored anywhere on a spy (in a stain on a dress for example) you would have to be able to sequence the human genome thousands of times over (once for every stain/suspect location) to have the data to apply encryption cracking algorithyms to. With the wonderful invention of PCR (polymerase chain reaction), the code (two primers of defined sequence, ~ 18 base pairs in length) and the location of the stain are all that needed to read the message. This idea is brilliant. Its not based on crypto but on the unreadability of the data. Yet provides a method for the intended receiver to find the message with very little info. The beauty is that the decoding message is very small, simple and easily crypto'd into a conversation.

    This idea is so simple and elegant that I'm sure the intelligence agencies around the world will use it now, if they are not already

God helps them that themselves. -- Benjamin Franklin, "Poor Richard's Almanac"