On July 18, 2016, at 2:22 A.M., Andy Bramante's cellphone buzzed with an incoming text. He rolled over in his bed, pulled his phone close to his face, and saw a message from Shobhita Sundaram.
"Heyy—guess who's a regional finalist for Google science fair??!" read the little text bubble.
Squinting down at his phone, Andy tapped out a reply. "Yaaaaaayyyy!!!! So happy for ya!"
Shobhi had spent her sophomore year in Andy's science research class at Greenwich High School building an algorithm that could help predict which breast cancer drugs would be most effective in killing tumors. She'd taught herself to code in middle school and was also a masterful public speaker, a crucial weapon in the science fair world. Between the knockout algorithm and her impressive ability to tout it, Andy thought Shobhita—aka Shobhi, the Shobhinator, and Shobhi-Wan Kenobi—was poised to floor the judges at the Connecticut Science and Engineering Fair (CSEF), the gateway to Intel ISEF, the mother of all science fairs. So it had seemed a shocking oversight of sorts when she failed to place at CSEF back in March. It had also infuriated Shobhi's mother, who'd wanted to send a scathing email to the judges.
Now, as he read the text that Shobhi was a regional finalist for the Google Science Fair, where thousands of kids from all over the world submitted a slew of ambitious projects, everything from fighting drought with fruit to detecting lung cancer with a breath test, a sense of redemption washed over Andy. He was thrilled that Shobhi got her due.
He fell back to sleep, but less than an hour later, his phone buzzed again. The 3:10 A.M. message was from William Yin, a rising senior and one of the most astounding kids Andy had ever had in his class.
"Hi Mr. B.," read the first text bubble.
The second said, "Shobi ['sic'] and I are GSF regional finalists!"
Ah, William. This was not so much a big surprise to Andy as continued validation for William's invention. He'd developed a
blueprint for a Band-Aid- like sticker that could be applied to the neck to detect the presence of atherosclerosis, the plaque that can break off, form a clot, and kill you with a heart attack or stroke. The Google accolade was the latest glittery float in a seemingly endless parade of William's victories for his sticker.
Andy tapped out a congratulatory reply that involved a lot of exclamation points, trying to make his delight register through his
foggy haze. William would always be one of Andy's most beloved, if crazy-making, students. There was a deep connection between the two, one born of brutally long days in the lab and the process of trying to work through the enigma that was William. But now Andy just wanted to get some shut-eye. He set his phone down on his night table, rolled over, and went back to sleep.
When he finally woke up for good that day, Andy texted back and forth to get some more reaction from the kids about the news. Shobhi was especially giddy. The night before, she'd set her alarm to wake up at two A.M. Eastern time, when Google released the names. Shobhi figured if she wasn't among this first cut of winners, she could just return to bed and sleep off her disappointment, rather than get up at a normal hour, learn she hadn't advanced, and spend her whole day being dogged by it.
Bleary-eyed, she woke up from her phone's alarm, opened her laptop, and logged on to the Google Science Fair site. And there on the page announcing the one hundred regional finalists were her photo and project. (Her region being the Americas.) The sixteen global finalists would be named in August. Shobhi texted Andy that her parents were "soo happy" and "I was too... once my heart rate had gone back to normal. I swear I got a heart attack when I saw my face on the page."
For the second year in a row, there was just one school and one teacher in the world with two Google regional finalists: Greenwich High and Andy Bramante.