Salem math whiz headed to world science, math challenge

A local student is getting international recognition

SALEM, Ore. -- After two rounds, a South Salem student is getting close to winning $400,000 in prizes in a global science competition. But he needs help to get there.

The Breakthrough Junior Challenge, funded in part by Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, is designed to inspire creative thinking about fundamental concepts in life sciences, physics and math.

Giancarlos Ortega, 16, is among 29 semifinalists of 11,000 original registrants from around the world, including the United Kingdom, India, United Arab Emirates, Australia, Brazil, Republic of Korea, Lebanon and the Philippines.

If Ortega wins the entire competition, he would win $250,000 in college scholarships, his teacher Warren Trotter would get $50,000 and South Salem High School would receive $100,000 for a new science lab.

In his three-minute video, Ortega compares the relationship between matrices and graphs to humans and aliens. These concepts are part of spectral graph theory, which is used by Facebook to suggest friends to users.

"Say we're here on Earth, the graph planet," Ortega says in the video, a cut-out image of him popping up behind a picture of Earth from space. "If I wanted to travel over to the planet of matrixes ... I would be seen as an invader and they would execute me.

"However, if I use my super cool math transformer and turn myself into an alien, I could go to Matrix Land without dying.

"Whether I am an alien or a human, I am still the same person. I think and behave the same way," he says. "The same is true with graphs and their matrices. They both describe a network and whether it is seen as a graph or a matrix, the behavior of the network is still the same."

Ortega was researching spectral graph theory with graduate students from Oregon State University when he first heard about the challenge last year.

"I was the only one who was able to put all the math into images and therefore understand on a deeper level," he said.

Though a junior at South Salem, Ortega plans to graduate this school year. If he wins the scholarship money, he will use it toward one of his goal universities — Yale or Oxford. The young mathematician wants to bring quantum mechanics into existing fields of science, like marine biology, to help people better understand the world around them.

Ortega spent the first 12 years of his life in Panama City, Panama. He moved to Salem with his mom, sister, brother and cousin to live with his step-dad.

Ortega carries his guitar "Rosie" with him wherever he goes. He writes poetry and short stories. And he is a polyglot — he is fluent in 14 languages and can read and write in 21.

Trotter, Ortega's math teacher at South Salem, said he loves working with students like Ortega because of the caliber of their ideas. As people get older, Trotter said, they become jaded and don't follow their creative instincts.

"I enjoy that unlimited thought process," Trotter said.

If Ortega wins, Trotter will win $50,000 as the teacher who has inspired him the most. Trotter isn't sure what he wants to do with the money yet, but a scholarship fund for future students is on his list of ideas.

Ortega said the prize money could also dramatically improve science, technology, engineering and math curricula at South Salem.

"I know STEM education is highly important and I also know my school doesn't emphasize STEM enough," he said. "Many students memorize useless facts they won't use ... They aren't developing independent thinkers.

"A $100,000 lab would change that entirely."

The contestants are now in the popular vote round of the contest. The public can vote for their favorite semifinalist on the official Breakthrough Facebook page until Thursday, Nov. 2 at 11:59 p.m. PST.

Votes can be cast by liking, sharing or issuing a “positive reaction” to the videos on the Breakthrough Prize Facebook page.

The top scorer in the popular vote, who will be revealed Friday, will automatically be a finalist.

Another 14 contestants will also move onto the finals, selected by a committee of professional educators, scientists, artists and more. The 15 finalists will all attend a ceremony in December in California where they will name the official winner of the entire challenge.

The challenge, which began in 2015, is funded by grants from Zuckerberg’s fund at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and the Milner Global Foundation. It is put on in partnership with the Khan Academy, National Geographic and the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Breakthrough Science Lab.

To vote for Ortega, go to www.facebook.com/BreakthroughPrize/.

Contact Natalie Pate at npate@StatesmanJournal.com, 503-399-6745, or follow her on Twitter @Nataliempate or on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/nataliepatejournalist.

© 2017 KGW-TV


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