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Glamour’s 20 Amazing Young Women: Erika DeBenedictis, Winner of Intel’s Science Talent Search

Erika was honored as one of Glamour’s 20 Amazing Young Women at the 2010 Glamour Women of the Year Awards. Read about the other honorees here.

Erika Alden DeBenedictis


Year in school and school:
Freshman undergrad at California Institute of Technology
Your email address:
[email protected]
Your website:
Your “claim to fame” – aka why you were part of Glamour’s 20 Amazing Young Women!: 
I won the 2010 Intel Science Talent Search for science research.
What are you doing to change the world?
I was researching methods of planning paths for spacecraft so that they use significantly less fuel than traditional methods.
What was your inspiration for this?
Several years ago I noticed an article in a science magazine whose title was “The Interplanetary Superhighway” with a really cool picture on the front. Several years later I was thinking of potential research topics and decided to look up that article.
What is a quotation or message that drives you?
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” -Feynman
What has been your proudest accomplishment so far?
I persevered and finished War and Peace! It’s actually a fantastic, engaging book that gets a bad rap for being long. I would recommend it to everyone.
At what one point did you really feel like you’d made an impact?
I help out with a local contest called the New Mexico Supercomputing Challenge by helping teach middle schoolers about computer science. I find teaching and working with students very rewarding.
What would you say was the “coolest” moment in your life thus far?
A few years ago I was battling the CUDA compiler in an attempt to get an asteroid orbit program to run on a graphics card. Something was wrong and it was running about fifty times slower than it would have on the CPU- despite the fact that the GPU has 239 more processors. I switched two variables, ran it, and suddenly it was 40 times faster! It was quite a eureka moment.
What is a challenge you’ve faced while trying to achieve your goals?
Youth. It’s a blessing and a curse. As a high school student I had to prove myself to other scientists when I was asking for help about my research.
If someone gave you a million dollars to benefit your cause (or your research, your company, etc.) what would you use it for?
Invest! But buy a new espresso machine first- the caffeine will help with plotting how best to use the money.
In 10 years I hope…
To be helping with the colonization of Mars. Making breakthroughs in artificial intelligence. Curing cancer. The usual mad scientist things.
What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?
If I wasn’t going to do science I would be a writer, a psychologist, a philosopher, or a combination of the three.
What 3 adjectives would people use to describe you?
Pragmatic, motivated, caffeinated
What is your biggest weakness?
Chocolate and arithmetic
Who is your hero and why?
Julius Caesar; a brilliant strategist, inspiring orator, creative thinker, and my favorite mysterious historical character.
Who is your biggest cheerleader, supporting you every step of the way?
My mom is literally a cheerleader at science fair awards ceremonies. She is also amazingly supportive in every way possible.
Describe your idea of a perfect day.
A Thursday when I don’t need to wake up for a 9 am class but go to math recitation (the TA is so great- it’s an hour of live entertainment) and tango class. To be followed by an evening of interesting and varied conversation.
What do you like to do outside of your work?
I play piano and sing in choir. I have an espresso habit and an infinite supply of reading material on my kindle.
Which of this year’s Glamour WOTY award winners would you most like to meet and why?
I would be interested to meet President Grybauskait?; she’s a fascinating character.
What was your favorite part of Glamour’s WOTY Awards?
I had an excuse to wear a fancy dress! This doesn’t happen very often!
What did you wear to Glamour’s WOTY Awards?
A sage green dress with amber and gold embellishment.
Who do you think should win a Glamour WOTY Award next year?
Posthumously? Amalie Noether
What is your favorite thing about Glamour magazine?
The ads.
What does “glamour” mean to you?
Unabashed beauty.
How does it feel to be honored as one of Glamour Magazine’s 20 young women who are already changing the world?
Surprising. It’s not every magazine that realizes that science can be glamorous. I’m honored that Glamour thought to recognize a young researcher.
What advice would you give to our college women readers?
Never let someone convince you that something is impossible. Also, interesting things happen if you microwave ivory soap (really).

Cara Sprunk has been the Managing Editor of Her Campus since fall 2009. She is a 2010 graduate of Cornell University where she majored in American Studies with a concentration in cultural studies. At Cornell Cara served as the Assistant Editor of Red Letter Daze, the weekend supplement to the Cornell Daily Sun where she also wrote for the news and arts section and blogged about pop culture. In her free time Cara enjoys reading, shopping, going to the movies, exploring and writing.  
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