Science Fair Displays Students’ Intellectual Prowess

NASA. Howard Hughes Medical Institute. National Institutes of Health. You may want to pay attention.

Loudoun County students are doing scientific research that goes well beyond the findings in a typical high school lab, and it was all on display this week at the county’s 35 annual Regional Science and Engineering Fair.

More than 200 students lined up in the Freedom High School gym to present 163 projects, spanning fields from physics and astronomy to mathematics and biochemistry. And the projects were critiqued and judged by some of the nation’s top scientists, engineers and doctors.

[See fair award winners below.]

Rock Ridge High School sophomore Gwyneth Schloer shows off her microgravity simulator, where she tested how to provide plants in a zero-gravity environment with enough light using little energy. (Danielle Nadler/Loudoun Now)
Rock Ridge High School sophomore Gwyneth Schloer shows off her microgravity simulator, where she tested how to provide plants in a zero-gravity environment with enough light using little energy. (Danielle Nadler/Loudoun Now)

The science fair illustrates what’s possible when young people are challenged to solve real-world problems, said Matt Young, Science Department chair at Woodgrove High School.

For many students, the fair is the culmination of an independent science research course, which challenges students to set out on their own to investigate and solve a problem. “The independent science research classes and this (the fair) is that first step for students to apply the skills that they’ll go on to use in college and beyond,” Young said.

He said he frequently hears from his former students about how they are ahead of their peers in college science courses. “By freshman or sophomore year, Loudoun County students are involved in research, which means they’re doing the work and wanting their work to make a real difference.”

And students pursue a project with more vigor when they’re working to solve a real-world problem, he added.

For example, in the months leading up to the fair Dominion High School senior Ngozi Akingbesote would arrive at school two hours early and stay an hour or two after school to work on her research project. She described the independent science research class as the most fun and most challenging class she’s ever taken.

“My attention was all there because I just cared about it so much,” she said.

For her project, Ngozi researched why fungal infections are so difficult to fight. She found that the fungus is rejuvenated by a protein, and that applying thioredoxin breaks down the protein and makes it easier to fight the fungus. Her experience in her home country of Nigeria is what prompted her to look into the infections.

Dominion High School senior Ngozi Akingbesote at the Loudoun County Regional Science and Engineering Fair Thursday. (Danielle Nadler/Loudoun Now)
Dominion High School senior Ngozi Akingbesote at the Loudoun County Regional Science and Engineering Fair Thursday. (Danielle Nadler/Loudoun Now)

“There’s a lot of superstition back home and they think it’s something caused by a witch,” she said, shaking her head. “They need to understand what it really is so that it can be addressed.” Her dream job is to go into biochemistry or biogenetics, and she said she’d love to return to Nigeria to run a clinic and introduce modern medical practices.

Lauren Smith, a senior at Woodgrove High School, said taking on her own research project, as opposed to one assigned to her, was exciting. “In other classes, they tell us what the end-goal is. With this, I can go out on my own and find a solution myself, and a solution I can apply to the real world.”

She noticed that a dog kennel business where she works had trouble stopping what’s called kennel cough. Staff members misted bleach into the air, which concerned Lauren, so she set out to find a better solution. Through her research, she discovered that the bleach only killed about half of the bacteria, but a short-wavelength ultraviolet (UV-C) light completely eliminated it.

“It was pretty eye-opening,” she said, pointing to petri dishes that showed the differing results of the two methods. Her idea is to install the $18 UV-C lights inside the vents of the kennel to completely get rid of the illness.

Lauren said she’s shared her research with the kennel’s owners and they’re interested in employing the concept. She’s also been asked to present the idea to county staff at the Loudoun Animal Shelter, where she volunteers

This was the first year William D’Angelo, of the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research, and his wife, Susanne Sterbing-D’Angelo, assistant research scientist at Johns Hopkins University, volunteered to serve as fair judges. D’Angelo said they wanted to do their part to encourage young people to pursue science.

He called the projects “exceptional” but what left the biggest impression on him was the students’ motivation for doing the research.

“You can see that fire in their eyes, and that’s what it takes to keep you going in this field, because it’s not money,” he said. Plus, most of the students don’t see the fair as the finish line for their projects. Many want to develop and apply their findings.

Past fair winners have gone on to earn national and even international attention for the work that got its start in Loudoun. Ari Dyckovsky, a 2012 Loudoun Academy of Science graduate, won the local fair and the world’s largest high school science research contest before attending Stanford University. He dropped out in 2014 to help launch a tech company, Arktos, which aims to offer an alternative to programs such as Microsoft Excel.

The fair’s top finalists who earned a spot in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair are: Kyle Enriquez (Stone Bridge), Marissa Sumathipala (Broad Run), Wyatt Pontius (Potomac Falls), Molly Magoffin (Loudoun Valley/Academy of Science), and Meghna Gorella (Dominion/Academy of Science). Woodgrove High School students and faculty took home several accolades. The Willowcroft Science Scholarship went to Woodgrove student Dawson Brown. Woodgrove’s Science Department Chair Matt Young received the Willowcroft Science Scholarship Teacher Award and the Anthony Colosi Memorial Teacher Award. The Anthony Colosi Memorial Scholarship went to Woodgrove student Emma Renner. The full list of award winners will be posted at http://www.lcps.org/rsef by this evening.

This year’s fair involved 230 students, 163 projects and close to 200 judges. (Danielle Nadler/Loudoun Now)
This year’s fair involved 230 students, 163 projects and close to 200 judges. (Danielle Nadler/Loudoun Now)

dnadler@loudounnow.com