This isn’t your typical school science fair. You won’t see papier mâché volcanos or Styrofoam mobiles of the solar system.
The budding researchers in the 36th annual Loudoun County Regional Science and Engineering Fair are delving into heady projects like how climate cycles impact acid rain, how texture alters stress levels, and how cinnamon and ginger affect memory.
These students have spent months becoming experts in their particular area of research and are working to solve real-world problems and, ultimately, advance science.
“That’s what makes a great science project,” Science Outreach Teacher Stephen Burton said. “We’re looking for students who clearly understand their field, can really communicate their findings. And the best projects are those that are unique—and are doing something that’s never been done before.”
More than 200 students showcased their projects at the county science fair, held today at Riverside High School in Lansdowne.
Gurveer Dulai, a Rock Ridge High School senior, set out to solve the mystery behind Chipotle’s recent tomato contamination crisis. He grew 90 plants—45 control plants and 45 experimental—to find out whether E. coli and Salmonella can contaminate the interior of a plant, not just its exterior, where it can fairly easily be washed off.
“What I found is that, yes, they can be present in the interior of the plant,” Dulai said. If the bacteria had just infected the exterior of plants, Chipotle’s standard practice of bleach-washing their vegetables would have been enough to sanitize them, he added.
Marissa Sumathipala, a Broad Run High School junior who was a top finisher at last year’s county science fair, drew a crowd at her booth. She showcased her research on how various proteins can be used as an effective drug for the treatment and prevention of cardiometabolic disease.
This is her third year taking part in the science fair, and she said each time she’s delved deeper into her research and felt more confident defending her findings. The students’ projects are critiqued and judged by some of the nation’s top scientists, engineers and doctors, who happen to live or work in Loudoun County.
“I’ve always loved science research,” Sumathipala said. “It’s really fun to dedicate a lot of time and energy to this and come out learning so much.”
Burton said the caliber of Loudoun students’ research projects is impressive, and some of that may be due to the county’s proximity to some of the nation’s top research organizations and companies, such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, National Institutes of Health and Orbital ATK, the fair’s main sponsor.
“Some of their parents are working at places like that,” Burton said, “so a lot of Loudoun County kids come in with some science background.”
The fair’s finalists will be announced at an awards ceremony tonight. The top awards come with an invitation to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles in May.