When COVID-19 comes for your science fair

The pandemic brought the world to a halt — but science fair research went on

Edgar Sosa and his mentor in a greenhouse

Edgar Sosa (center) works with his mentor Wade Elmer in a greenhouse. Edgar treated coffee plants with metal particles to protect them from a deadly fungus.

E. Sosa

School is not like it used to be. With the COVID-19 pandemic, classes moved online for many students. Others spent class time in socially distanced bubbles. Subjects like history became more difficult than usual, and band and sports even more so. What about projects for the science fair? This year, finalists in the Regeneron Science Talent Search faced labs shutting down, jobs drying up and research grinding to a halt.

But they didn’t let a pandemic stop them.

Some students took their work in new directions, switching projects or jobs. Others switched their focus to COVID-19 itself. And a few even built their own labs, taking advantage of space in the garage or a spare bathroom.

The Regeneron Science Talent Search (STS) brings together 40 high school seniors from across the United States. This week they compete for more than $1.8 million in awards. STS was created by the Society for Science, which still runs the program and also publishes Science News for Students.

New world, new work

Edgar Sosa, 20, had finished most of his project by the time the pandemic hit. The senior at Greenwich High School in Connecticut was trying to find a way to stop coffee rust — a fungus that attacks coffee plants.

“I love plants,” Edgar says. “I’ve been surrounded by plants since I was born.” His family had owned a coffee farm in Guatemala, but coffee rust attacked the plants. Edgar eventually moved to the United States. Before the pandemic, he completed a research project that showed spraying coffee plants with tiny copper particles could help protect them against a fungus. It might even guard them against coffee rust.

But by the time COVID-19 hit, the more pressing problem was his job as a waiter. “I’ve been working almost every day since I came [to the United States],” Edgar says. The pandemic kept people from going to restaurants. So Edgar had to find another job. He spent the summer landscaping and helping to install pools. During this time, his research stopped. “I got stuck and couldn’t keep moving forward,” he says. Once he can get back to the greenhouse, though, he hopes to continue his research. “There’s always a new day.”

For Michael Gomez, 17, a school shutdown meant a lab shutdown. A senior at Bergen County Academies in Hackensack, N.J., Gomez was studying how a drug called celecoxib (Seh-leh-COX-ib) might change melanin — a pigment that gives skin its color. By using the drug to change how much melanin skin cells produce, Michael hopes to help people who suffer scarring from injuries or acne.

“The lab I used was in school,” he says. “I would go during lunch. [Then] my school shut down so I couldn’t continue the wet lab aspect.” He turned to the internet. He used a database to see if genes for melanin — DNA instructions for making proteins — changed in response to his drug. But he can’t confirm his findings, at least not yet. Without lab experiments, “I wasn’t able to fully establish it,” he explains.

Pandemic science

Vivian Yee posing inside a convention center
Vivian Yee poses at the February 2020 Model United Nations, where the theme was “pandemics.” Just a month later, the United States was in the midst of one. That summer Vivian took on a COVID-19-based science project. V. Yee

For Vivian Yee, 17, COVID-19 didn’t affect her project. COVID-19 was her project.

The senior at International Academy in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., was horrified to see how the pandemic was impacting some groups of people more than others. She was especially interested in how social factors such as race, poverty and education might affect the spread of COVID-19 and efforts to fight the disease. These social factors are also known as social vulnerabilities.

As she read studies early in the pandemic, the senior saw something missing. “I saw that when looking at social vulnerability, they were only accounting for like one or two different factors,” she says. But there are 15 different social factors that could affect disease spread.

Vivian completed a virtual summer internship with Asad Moten, a scientist at the U.S. Department of Defense. She looked at all 15 social factors and showed that communities with less education and healthcare had suffered more from COVID-19.

The senior then came up with ideas for how to help communities most at risk from COVID-19. Her mentor sent her ideas to his member of Congress. The ideas got included in a memo presented to the federal government’s Coronavirus Task Force. She is also working on publishing her results in a scientific journal. 

For Vivian, this kind of research was entirely new. “I was always in the laboratory, growing cells,” she says. “I definitely, this summer, learned through a lot of trial and error.”

Home is where the lab is

Sometimes, when you can’t go to the lab, you can bring the lab home. That’s what Jared Ilan, 17, and Parisa Vaziri, 18, did.

Parisa, a senior at Plano East Senior High School in Plano, Texas, had been studying fruit flies. She worked in a lab at the University of California, Berkeley in the summer of 2019. But the next year, that wasn’t possible. So the UC Berkeley lab mailed her boxes of fruit flies, and Parisa cleared out her bathroom. “I had to make a deal with my mom that none [of the flies] would escape,” she says. The teen set up shelves in her shower to store flies, and put a microscope over the toilet. She posted about her new mini lab on TikTok, where the video has received almost 300,000 likes and thousands of comments.

The teen was studying how two genes might affect symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. This disorder occurs most often in older people and affects their movement. Parisa carefully bred and tested fruit flies to see how well they could fly and climb. She also teased apart their brain cells with a needle to study them. “I was in there 10 hours a day,” she says. COVID-19 has been terrible, she notes, but “I’m grateful that it brought me a lot of unique experiences.”

Jared Ilan chopping vegetables in a kitchen
Don’t eat that. It’s for science. Jared Ilan chopped up veggies in his kitchen to study how they might help grow meat in a laboratory one day.J. Ilan

Jared, a senior at Byram Hills High School in Armonk, N.Y., was trying to figure out how to grow meat from animal cells in a dish. Animal cells need structures to grow on. Usually those are provided by our bodies. To grow meat without a whole cow or chicken, Jared was looking to use plant structures. “Initially I was going to do it in the lab, growing meat on plants,” he says. “I had to do it in the garage instead.”

He built a device to test how meat cells stretched in comparison to celery, kale and cabbage. He wanted to find out which plant cells might best support a growing laboratory burger. Celery won out.

COVID-19 has been hard. Many of this year’s STS finalists had to change projects and learn entirely new things. But that’s not always bad. The pandemic, Jared says, “taught me to improvise. I think even though I wasn’t able to do things in a lab, I ended up getting results that could be significant in my field.”

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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