Vancouver teen’s work earns $50,000 award from Intel
Monday, May 24, 2010
It’s late night on a quiet street in Vancouver’s Arnada neighborhood, mere feet from traffic rumbling past on Interstate 5.
In the basement of his family’s cozy home, Kevin Ellis plugs away in his “office.”
A Dell laptop glows with one research paper or another posted by the nation’s top teachers of computer science.
The 18-year-old sips from a caffeine-packed bottle of Bawls Guarana energy drink. Ordered online by mom, it’s his fuel of choice. Rows of blue and brown empties line the window sill.
Under the table in the small eating nook, Kevin’s shoes scuff the floor. He’s worn a rut into the off-white linoleum during untold hours spent poring over data, sketching notes and equations in yet another dog-eared, loose-leaf notebook.
Pickles, a female tabby, offers animate company. In the next room, a bench and free weights provide an option to blow off steam and build more strength.
“Kevin is very self-motivated,” says his mother, Jenny Morse, now raising him and Sarah Ellis, 17, as a single parent. “He has a very deep passion. He’s always working, he’s always learning,” she says with a warm smile. “My job is just to get out of the way.”
And so, the earnest, wiry teen burns the midnight oil.
He uses time and solitude to untangle and rewrite algorithms that support critical software, finding incremental advances that could speed computers for users worldwide.
Rewind to May 14, well past midnight in San Jose, Calif.: Too wired to sleep, Kevin’s high school classmate and hotel roomie predicts Kevin will score a top prize in the high-stakes Silicon Valley competition in which they’re entered.
Hours later, the friend’s vision becomes reality.
Kevin takes a $50,000 all-around excellence award after earning top computer science honors at the Intel Corp.’s 14th International Science and Engineering Fair.
There’s more: His roomie, also 18 and a senior at southwest Portland’s private Catlin Gabel School, scores the other $50,000 all-around prize, after shining in physics and astronomy.
Never have schoolmates won the dual awards. Incredible, given the pair are among 1,611 high school competitors, from 59 countries and territories.
“I was totally floored,” Kevin recalls. “That seemed so surreal. It was so weird and cool at the same time.”
Within minutes, screams erupt at Orchards Elementary School. His mother, Jenny, a veteran special education teacher, can’t resist when he phones. “I had to apologize to the music class next door,” she says.
The Catlin classmate, Yale Fan (his real name, yes) will apply his prize money to study at Harvard University. Yale’s projects showed the benefits of quantum computing.
And Kevin? He’s bound for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, just down the avenue. There he’ll rub shoulders with such stars as Marvin L. Minsky, world pioneer in robotics and leading authority on artificial intelligence.
And, computer science giants Gerald Jay Sussman and Harold Abelson, co-authors of the textbook Kevin says sparked his original interest.
Kevin’s winning research doubles as his senior school project. It’s earned an enviable internship at Intel’s Jones Farm complex in Hillsboro, Ore. Already, he’s teamed with professionals on the Intel Parallel Studio Team and has his own cubicle.
He deftly explains what those complex algorithmic equations do, in the real world.
It seems engineers have pushed small microprocessors that run computer functions to the limit. Any faster and the microprocessors “would melt,” Kevin says.
The answer? Load multiple microprocessors on each silicon chip, as Intel already often does. Let them split and share work more efficiently, constantly communicating, much like neurons in the human brain that fire messages at warp speed.
Kevin’s knack is to create new software that figures an ever more efficient division of labor. And can generate instant feedback to help microprocessors learn on their own how to best assign tasks. This “automated parallelization” also helps eliminate the need to write new algorithms for each challenge.
The concept dates to the 1970s, but Kevin’s refinements are highly impressive. He’s shaved process time off tasks, by multiples — in one example, producing a 3-D graphic rendering of multiple items 8.7 times faster than before.
“You show (the hardware) what you want to do multiple times, until it matches that best. Which is faster,” he says. And which verges on artificial intelligence, a potential study field.
Both repeat Intel contestants, Kevin and Yale had high hopes but faced brilliant competition, Kevin says. (The top $75,000 Intel prize went to Amy Chyao, 15, a Texas student who merely demonstrated a whole new use of light energy to activate a cancer-killing drug).
“The awards are subjective and random. I wouldn’t put too much into it,” Kevin says softly.
But no one doubts his talent. There were two years in Image Elementary’s EXCEL program in the EvergreenPublic Schools, four years in the challenge program at Vancouver’s Eleanor Roosevelt Elementary, two more at Discovery Middle School before he switched to Catlin Gabel.
His intensity wrapped under curly blond locks, Kevin bristles at some labels he’s given.
“I wouldn’t say, ‘gifted.’ I would say there’s just people who are really more interested in things,” he says. Answers don’t come quick and easy but demand hard thinking, failures and hard lessons, he notes.
His Vancouver teachers and mentors fed his drive.
He was inspired by memorable projects in Ann Smith’s challenge class at Roosevelt, he says. An oft-honored teacher, Smith remembers an “amazing kid” who nailed his role in a class play and already was hooked on computers: “He spoke and understood more than I could ever dream to comprehend.”
At Discovery, Kevin shined in the Science Olympiad program. He played violin in its the popular strings program. One teacher, Walt Cuculic, loaned an advanced geometry textbook that piqued his interest; another instructor, a calculus textbook.
That laid the groundwork for Catlin, made possible when Jenny’s father stepped forward to pay the school tuition.
Soon, Kevin’s penchant for devouring textbooks, then e-mailing their authors, professors and researchers with new questions, would consume his Arnada nights.
By day, he was under the wing of Andrew Merrill, his computer science instructor all four years of high school. The teacher has seen few students as dedicated.
“These are all his ideas,” Merrill says. “He loves to explore really complicated material. The questions that weren’t answered, he started finding answers himself.
“It’s a lot of hard work, original ideas … (then) hours and hours of plugging away.”
Turns out Kevin’s first stabs at sorting chip tasks worked well, but also greatly slowed them.
“He realized he was only halfway there,” Merrill says. “A lot of people would have quit there. But he doesn’t. He just runs into one obstacle, one roadblock after another and he just conquers them. That’s a rare trait.”
True, family genes play a role: Kevin’s father, David Ellis, is an Intel electrical engineer.
Kevin’s college search was, of course, diligent. He eyed Cal Tech, Stanford, Carnegie-Mellon. MIT triumphed on the strength of its computer science program, and its culture.
“The people were very interesting, and passionate about what they do,” he says. The big Intel prize, further scholarships and need-based financial aid should keep costs within the family’s reach.
MIT’s cat-friendly dorm helped to seal his choice. Pickles will head east with Kevin, which seems only fitting.
Says his mentor, Merrill: “This is all him, starting from scratch.”
Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or firstname.lastname@example.org.