By Susan Palmer, The Register-Guard
EUGENE, Ore. — It would be great to explain the research paper that led to 18-year-old Hannah Larson’s selection as a finalist for a prestigious national science award, but there’s a problem.
It takes a working knowledge of theoretical mathematics to understand the meaning of “Classification of Some Fusion Categories of Rank FOUR,” the title of the project that put Larson in the running for a $100,000 scholarship.
One of 40 finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search offered by the Society for Science and the Public, the South Eugene High School senior was selected from among 1,700 entrants who were then winnowed to 300 semifinalists.
The 40 finalists will compete in Washington, D.C., in March for $630,000 in awards.
Larson already is taking graduate level math courses at the University of Oregon.
Here’s how Larson describes fusion categories: “A fundamental mathematical concept that has applications in many different areas in math, as well as in theoretical physics and computer science. That’s why they’re cool, because they show up in different places, and they have the potential to unify some theories.”
Try going online to look for a more specific explanation, and it will make you glad Larson chose recognizable words, as opposed to this description from one website: A fusion category is a rigid, semisimple, linear (Vect-enriched) monoidal category, with only finitely many isomorphism classes of simple objects, such that the endomorphisms of the unit object form just the ground field k.
Larson has had a thing for math since elementary school. But she found herself really drawn in when her brother, Eric Larson, won a statewide math contest back when she was in fifth grade and he was in middle school.
“I walked up to his middle school math teacher, (the renowned and now-retired Marna Knoer) and said, ‘Can I have some extra math to do, too?’ And so she gave me pre-algebra to study,” Larson recalled.
By the time she was in the 10th grade, Larson was taking calculus classes at the UO. The fun really kicked in when the math became theoretical, she said.
“Instead of doing computations, we were proving theorems and showing why it worked,” she said. “Once you get into more theoretical math, it’s more like literature.
“You’re proving something. You’re writing out a solution, and the way you write that solution is going to be slightly different for each person. You’re setting up a logical trajectory that proves your result, and it’s absolute truth when you’re done.”
Larson is among three finalists from Oregon for the Intel prize. The Portland area students’ work concerns optimizing algae oil as a source of biofuel and developing a new treatment for cancer.
Students must have completed an independent research project and have results to report to compete.
“It’s exciting for the future of innovation, because the U.S. needs these 40 high school seniors, and others like them, to question, explore and help solve some of the world’s greatest challenges,” said Wendy Hawkins, executive director of the Intel Foundation.
Larson and her brother certainly are doing their part.
Eric Larson, who is four years older and a math student at Harvard, won the Intel prize in 2009 that his sister is now seeking.
Like her brother, who is an accomplished pianist, Hannah Larson is a talented musician who plays cello with the Oregon Youth Symphony.
She likes running, enjoys cooking and draws praise from South Eugene Principal Randy Bernstein because she has several interests and is down to earth, not making a big deal about how smart she is.
“When I was in school, there were some kids who had their SAT scores practically tattooed on their foreheads,” Bernstein said. “She’s not like that.”
All the finalists for the Intel prize will receive a financial award, $7,500 for 30 of them, $20,000 for the eighth- through 10th-place finishers, $25,000 for sixth and seventh place, $40,000 for fourth, $50,000 for third, $75,000 for second and $100,000 for the winner.
Larson is still in the process of applying to universities and declines to say which schools she wants to attend. But she knows what she’ll be doing this summer.
Emory University in Atlanta has accepted her to participate in a research experience for undergraduates, Bernstein said.
The only high school student in the group, she will be working alongside college students from Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago, he said.
Students like Larson, who excel beyond what high school offers, can take UO courses under a program called Duck Link, Bernstein said.
Students usually take math and foreign languages, but it’s more common for juniors and seniors, he said.
“There are very few who start in 10th grade,” he said. “She’s a wonderful young lady.
“For a student so mathematically astute, she’s very well-rounded.”