Student Spotlight - Meet Erika DeBenedictis, 2010 Science Talent Search Winner!
By Shaira Bhanji
It’s not every 18-year-old girl who presents her research to a room full of NASA’s rocket scientists. Erika Alden DeBenedictis, a freshman at the California Institute of Technology, won the 2010 Intel Science Talent Search (STS) for her innovative research on technologies that can minimize the amount of fuel a spacecraft uses.
After hearing about the prize, researchers at JPL invited her to present her work as an invited speaker. “It was quite the experience,” she says, “about half the people I cited were in the room.” She presented a concept design for an autonomous spacecraft navigation system which would use the gravity and movement of planets, rather than fuel, to travel the solar system. This research project is the latest in a series of topics Erika addressed during middle and high school, ranging from simulating the formation of snowflakes to automatically identifying asteroids in astronomy images.
Although her science research interests are primary, Erika also maintains a diverse set of hobbies. During a trip to France to tour the new particle accelerator, she fell in love with espresso, and has become a self-proclaimed ‘coffee snob.’ She also enjoys tango, yoga, piano, and choir. She loves to cuddle up with a good book—she’s currently reading The Dwarf by Pär Lagerkvist.
Science is still Erika’s main focus, and in her professional career she hopes to bridge the gap between research and industrial application. Although she is now majoring in physics at Caltech, her initial interest was sparked by her dad, a computer scientist. She learned how to program early on, and running simulations proved to be a valuable tool for a young student without access to a lab. Her father acted as a mentor and an inspiration. “If I’ve been trying to get a bug out of my code for a few hours and just can’t figure it out, I’ll go over to my dad and mumble a few words about the problem. And he’s like, ‘Oh yeah, you must have done this,’ and then he tells me exactly what’s wrong. It’s amazing.”
Erika’s research has largely focused on the application of computer science to solve problems in physics. Lately, she’s been branching out by working in a bioengineering lab at Caltech. “I have always been mystified by the fact that biology works. Getting the chance to do experiments myself, and ask endless questions of the grad student I’m working for, has been extremely interesting.”
Erika’s experience in science has not been a feminist’s nightmare. “The first time that I heard science was something that only guys did was my second year of doing the science fair in middle school. All the women engineering societies started coming up to me and making a big deal of the fact that I was a girl. Before that I had no idea that this was in any way unusual.”
While she can’t be certain where she’ll end up in 10 years, one thing is certain—fuel is no limit for Erika DeBenedictis.
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Shaira, Harvard 2013, concentrates in Economics with a secondary in Global Health and Health Policy. She is a debater in the Harvard Speech and Parliamentary Debate Society and also enjoys reading, walks along the Charles (or did, before it got cold), and playing her violin. Her science experience includes research internships at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as well as at City of Hope National Medical Center. She has written for her high school newspaper, The Flintridge Press, as well as for the Ismaili Magazine USA. She has also done scientific writing during her time at City of Hope and has fond memories writing countless debate speeches as a Varsity high school debater.