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High Schooler Heads to Top Science Competition, Wants to Teach ‘the Beauty of Math and Science’

Sanath Devalapurkar was eight years old when he picked up his first calculus book. It was 2008, and Devalapurkar, who was born in India, was living in the United Kingdom with his father, a software engineer, and his mother, a homemaker.

Having already studied algebra, a subject usually taught to kids when they are 13 or 14, Devalapurkar was intrigued by the equations he saw.

"They seemed cool, so I started to study calculus," Devalapurkar told NBC News.

Sanath Devalapurkar presenting his project, "Preserving Algebraic Structures on Exact ∞-Categories with the K-Theory Functor," at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Courtesy of Sanath Devalapurkar

That early interest in math, aided by his parents' unflagging encouragement and support, laid the groundwork for Devalapurkar, now 15, to become one of 40 finalists in this year's Intel Science Talent Search, a prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors that began in 1942.

Devalapurkar said his project, entitled "Algebraic K-Theory is Stable and Admits a Multiplicative Structure for Module Objects," bridges two fields of math that both have real-world applications: algebraic topology and algebraic geometry.

Algebraic topology, which examines the conditions under which shapes can be deformed into one another, has recently been used in helping to organize and analyze large amounts of data, Devalapurkar said.

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Algebraic geometry, by contrast, is the study of zeros of certain equations called polynomials, Devalapurkar explained. Elliptic curves, which are one class of curves in algebraic geometry, have played a key role in the field of cryptography, the encoding and decoding of often sensitive information such as credit card data, he said.

Devalapurkar's interest in algebraic topology landed him a meeting in 2014 with Marcy Robertson, a mathematics professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. Devalapurkar began taking courses at UCLA in the fall of that year, and Robertson became his mentor, he said. Those course credits will allow Devalapurkar, who lives in a suburb outside Los Angeles, to graduate two years early from West High School in Torrance, California.

Sanath Devalapurkar, the youngest ever first-prize winner at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists, will compete at the Intel Science Talent Search in March. Courtesy of Sanath Devalapurkar

The Intel Science Talent Search, which Devalapurkar applied to last November, is not the first competition he has entered. In September, Devalapurkar brought home one of three first-place awards at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists, held in Milan, Italy. He received 7,000 euros for a project on algebraic K-theory.

Devalapurkar also won $5,000 in the 2015 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, a high school science research competition.

But prizes are not what motivate Devalapurkar.

"It's quite unlikely that I'm going to win it, but I'm not really going there to win anything," he said, referring to the Intel Science Talent Search. "I really just want to meet other people who love science and math as much as I do."

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This year's Intel Science Talent Search culminates in March with a seven-day, all-expense-paid trip to Washington D.C., where judges will award three first-place prizes of $150,000 each, three second-place prizes of $75,000 each, and three third-place prizes of $35,000 each. All finalists will receive $7,500 for qualifying, and they'll also get to meet President Barack Obama, Devalapurkar said.

Devalapurkar said his parents are very proud of him becoming an Intel Science Talent Search finalist — so much so that his mother, Shobha, bought him a chocolate cake. The news has also brought joy to Devalapurkar's father, Sachin, who recently had to travel back to India for a family issue, Devalapurkar said.

Both his mother and father will attend the awards ceremony on March 16, he said.

"It makes me happy to see them this happy," Devalapurkar said.

Devalapurkar is set to graduate high school in June, though he's still unsure about where he'll attend college in the fall. He's already been admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he says, but is still waiting to hear back from a host of other schools, including various campuses of the University of California, as well as Harvard University, the University of Chicago, and the California Institute of Technology.

Devalapurkar said he plans to pursue a doctorate in science or math and hopes to someday become a college professor. Teaching, he added, is his passion.

"I love telling people about the beauty of science and math, and that's why I love teaching so much," Devalapurkar said.

But the Common Core, a set of rigorous state standards in math and English designed to help kids become college ready, has raised some concerns for Devalapurkar.

"I think people, at least in my school, have been focused more on getting the grade rather than actually being focused on learning the beauty of math and science, which I think is not something that should be encouraged," Devalapurkar said.

"But that," he added, "is just a 15 year-old's opinion."

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