Science on the South Lawn

The White House hosts scores of student researchers

Jack Andraka, Jessika Baral and Sara Volz (left to right) were three of the 14 alumni from SSP science competitions invited to attend the third White House Science Fair on April 22. Credit: SSP
Jack Andraka, Jessika Baral and Sara Volz (left to right) were three of the 14 alumni from SSP science competitions invited to attend the third White House Science Fair on April 22. SSP

One hundred U.S. students got to discuss science and engineering with President Barack Obama this week. The White House invited these middle-school and high-school students to honor their individual or team research — and to showcase the developments by nearly half of them. During a photo opportunity, the president even shook hands with a prosthetic arm designed by one young engineer.

Also on hand to meet the young researchers: the president’s science advisers, members of Congress and leading science communicators.

It all took place at the third White House Science Fair, on April 22. Held on the 43rd anniversary of the first Earth Day, it hosted students from more than 40 states. They represented 45 different competitions and organizations that seek to inspire students to excel in science, technology, engineering and math — the so-called STEM fields. Fourteen of the honorees had taken part in at least one of the major science competitions run by Society for Science & the Public (SSP), publisher of Science News for Kids.

One young engineer regaled the president with details about her robot that can paint with watercolors. Another team described their development of novel buoys to warn swimmers and lifeguards about dangerous rip currents. Another young inventor described her device that helps people with hand or forearm tremors to more easily write and use a computer mouse. At one stop on his tour of these projects, the president even hopped on a bike. His pedal power helped two young inventors demonstrate a portable sanitation system that filters E. coli and other harmful germs from water.

The president hosted the event on the South Lawn of the White House and in the State Dining Room. After touring the students’ projects, Obama launched into a small speech by noting that “in my official capacity as President, this stuff is really cool.”

The president’s remarks mentioned 16-year-old Jack Andraka and the novel test he designed to detect pancreatic cancer. Andraka is from Crownsville, Md., where he attends North County High School. What inspired this teen to tackle one of the deadliest cancers? The disease claimed the life of his uncle.

At first, Andraka had difficulty finding a researcher to help him. Nearly 200 scientists rejected his request for space in their lab to pursue his work. Finally, the teen convinced a researcher at Johns Hopkins University to be his mentor. (A mentor is an experienced or knowledgeable person who guides or assists others in their studies, work or professional development). With that help and guidance, Andraka went on to develop a test for early-stage pancreatic cancer. It is faster, cheaper and more than 100 times more sensitive than current tests for the disease. “Not bad,” the president noted, “for a guy who is just barely old enough to drive.”

Not bad, indeed. Andraka’s efforts garnered more than a half dozen awards at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, including the $75,000 top prize.

Sara Volz, 17, from Colorado Springs, Colo., also got an extended shout-out from the president. This Cheyenne Mountain High School senior had also competed in challenges sponsored by SSP. The president noted that “One reporter asked her, ‘Exactly what is growing under your bed that’s going to save the planet?’ And Sara’s answer was algae that can produce more oil for cheaper biofuels.”

In glass flasks kept under her loft bed, Volz cultivated various types of algae. She applied herbicides tailored to kill algae that didn’t produce large amounts of those oils. This practice left only those algae that generated higher quantities. Over generations, those remaining strains boosted their oil-producing ability. When asked by a White House staffer what her parents thought of her bedroom laboratory, Volz quipped, “They’re happy that I moved everything out of the kitchen.”

Volz participated in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair each of the past three years. And last month, she took home the $100,000 grand prize at the 2013 Intel Science Talent Search in Washington, D.C.

“I’ve got to say, young people like these, every one of them have these kinds of incredible innovations,” the president said. “Some of them are already fully operational.  Some of them are getting fine-tuned.  But young people like these have to make you hopeful about the future of our country.”

Elizabeth Marincola, president of SSP, agrees: “These students will be the future generation of scientists and leaders who solve the problems of tomorrow.”

SSP has developed and runs several science education programs. Two high school programs are sponsored by Intel Corp.: the Intel Science Talent Search and the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Broadcom Foundation sponsors another competition: the Broadcom MASTERS (which stands for Math, Applied Science, Technology, and Engineering for Rising Stars). The MASTERS program is open to students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

Besides Andraka and Volz, SSP-competition alumni who attended this year’s White House Science Fair included:

Jessika Baral, 13, an eighth-grade student at Williams Hopkins Junior High School in Fremont, Calif. She won an award for innovation at the 2012 Broadcom MASTERS for her project titled “A Novel Way to Strengthen Eye Muscles and Enhance Peripheral Vision.”

Saumil Bandyopadhyay, 18, attends the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Studies in Richmond, Va. He was an Intel International Science and Engineering Fair finalist in 2012 for a project titled “A Novel Universal Photon and Radioactive Beta Particle Detector: Multifunctionality Enabled by Wavefunction Engineering, Photomodulated Electron Tunneling, and Quantum Confinement of Charge Carrier Motion in Nanowires.” He was also a semifinalist in last month’s 2013 Intel Science Talent Search.

Nathan Kondamuri, 18, of Munster High School in Munster, Ind. He was a 2012 finalist in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for his research titled “A Novel Solar Cell Combining Coordinated Metal Ion Substitution and Self-Assembly to Broaden the Absorption Spectrum and Efficiently Transform Light Energy into Electricity.” He was also a semifinalist in last month’s 2013 Intel Science Talent Search.

Easton LaChappelle, a 17-year-old who attends Mancos High School in Mancos, Colo. He won an award in engineering and an honorable mention at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for his project titled “Fine Motor Skills Using EEG Technology and Biomechanical Prosthesis.”

Henry Lin, 16, of the Caddo Parish Magnet High School in Shreveport, La. He was named a finalist in the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for his project titled “A Generalized Holographic Model of Cosmic Accelerated Expansion.”

Caleb Meyer, 18, a senior at Hope-Page Public School in Hope, N.D. He won two awards and a certificate of honorable mention at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for his project titled “Wind: A New Spin on Things.”

Naethan Mundkur, 17, a senior at DuPont Manual High School in Louisville, Ky. This finalist will present his research next month, in Phoenix, Ariz., at the 2013 Intel Science Talent Search. He’s titled his project: “Investigation into the Thermal and Rheological Properties of CuO Nanofluids for Heat Transfer Applications.”

Meghana Vijay Rao, 17, of Jesuit High School in Portland, Ore. A finalist in the 2011 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, she presented a paper titled: “Biochar Carbon Sequestration: The Effects of Feedstock and Temperature of Pyrolysis on Chemical and Physical Stability of Biochar.”

Parth Thakker, 16, of South Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte, N.C. This 2012 finalist in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair presented research titled “The Synthesis and Analysis of Various Sugar-Based Potassium Nitrate Rocket Propellants.”

Megan Waples, 16, a junior at the University School of Milwaukee in Wisconsin. A finalist at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, her project was titled “Can Wii Teach Surgery? Do Video Games and Surgery Skills Correlate?”

Brittany Wenger, 18, a senior at the Out-of-Door Academy in Sarasota, Fla. She took eighth place in the 2013 Intel Science Talent Search for a project titled “Global Neural Network Cloud Service for Breast Cancer.”

Mabel Wheeler, 13, a seventh-grade student at Lake Ridge Junior High School in Orem, Utah. She won one of the Rising Stars awards at the 2012 Broadcom MASTERS for her project titled “Sunburnt Polymers.”

Power Words

biofuels Energy sources derived from carbon stored in living organisms. Although wood is a biofuel, most people supporting “green” sources of energy think of biofuels as liquids that can take the place of gasoline in vehicles. Examples include bioethanol, an alcohol derived from crops such as corn or sugar cane. Engineers are now trying to develop ways to make biofuels from nonfood crops such as trees and grasses.

evolution The change in the inherited characteristics of biological populations over successive generations.

herbicide A weed killer. Some herbicides kill all types of plants, but others are “selective.” That means they are designed to kill certain unwanted plants (considered weeds) but leave desirable plants, such as lawn grasses or crops, untouched.

mentor An individual who lends his or her experience to advise someone starting out in a field. In science, teachers or researchers often mentor students, helping them refine their research questions. Mentors can also offer feedback on how young investigators prepare to conduct research. 

pancreatic cancer A disease characterized by the uncontrolled growth of cells in or on the pancreas. The pancreas is a gland that produces many hormones and enzymes necessary for digestion. Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. That’s largely because doctors seldom find the disease before it has grown substantially and spread. Some 44,000 U.S. residents are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year.

prosthetic An artificial device that replaces a missing body part. A prosthetic limb, for example, replaces parts of an arm or leg. These parts are usually missing due to injury, disease or birth defect.