Teens compete in international science research fair's Pittsburgh finals

Event showcases serious scientific research


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Natalie Nash designed an iPhone system that allows the visually impaired to navigate through a room full of furniture.

Working evenings in a Pittsburgh laboratory for four years, Chareeni Kurukulasuriya has shown that an omega 3 fatty acid not only has anti-tumor effects but also enhances the effectiveness of an existing medication for head and neck cancers.

Robert Vaerewyck spent his time inventing a model car powered by pavement heat.

So how'd you spend your high school years?

The three, along with four other local high school students, will join 1,542 other American and international teenagers this week at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center for Intel International Science and Engineering Fair 2012 -- the world's largest high school science research competition. The fair with students' project displays will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday.

Other local participants include Alicia Grabiec, 17, and Elizabeth Posney, 17, both of Freeport Area Senior High School; Calvin Beideman, a 15-year-old home-schooled student from Pittsburgh; and Andrew Lingenfelter, 14, of Seneca Valley Intermediate High School.

This year, more than 7 million high school students worldwide competed in 446 regional fairs in 68 countries. The best received all-expenses-paid trips to the Pittsburgh finals. They will share ideas and showcase "cutting-edge research" that will be judged by hundreds of science, engineering and industry professionals who hold doctoral degrees in a competition for more than $3 million in awards and scholarships.

The winners in 17 categories will compete for the $75,000 Gordon E. Moore Award. Two runners-up will each receive the Intel Foundation Young Scientists Award of $50,000. Three finalists will receive the Dudley R. Herschbach SIYSS Award -- all-expenses-paid trips to the Stockholm International Youth Science Seminar that includes attendance at the Nobel Prize ceremonies in Sweden. Other prizes range from $500 to $5,000.

These are not baking-soda-volcano projects: "These kids are not doing cookbook science -- adding this to that and seeing if it turns purple," said Wendy Hawkins, executive director of the Intel Foundation, the fair sponsor.

Students face the challenge of seeking solutions to "the problems of tomorrow" with authentic research. The projects are in the fields of medicine, electronics and engineering, with some students showcasing commercial products they've invented. This year's research includes earthquake detection, oil-spill cleanup, self-navigating robots, energy-generating hiking boots and alternative chemotherapy treatments.

"Every year that I can remember, 20 percent of the students who arrive at Intel ISEF have applied for patents, and this year, 25 percent have," said Ms. Hawkins.

The opening ceremonies speaker is Ben Gulak, a three-time finalist who developed a one-wheeled motorcycle when he was in the competition and now is chief executive officer of BPG Motors.

Amy Chyao, who won the 2010 competition at age 15, developed a cancer treatment now in use. Taylor Wilson, a four-time finalist, took third place last year with his system that detects nuclear materials. A Chinese student's research this year used foxglove flowers to create a treatment for type 2 diabetes that provides better results than a commonly used medication.

A boy from India, who drummed on his pant leg while riding the train, developed an electronic drum kit incorporated into his trousers that he linked to his iPod to allow him to practice during his travels. He uses the electronic trouser drums, rather than a regular drum kit, when his band performs.

The seven local teenage scientists are anxious to show their prowess at the fair.

Working in the Hillman Cancer Center lab of Robert Ferris, Chareeni Kurukulasuriya, a 17-year-old Pittsburgh Allderdice High School senior, showed that docosahexaenoic acid, a fatty acid found in fish oil, boosted the effectiveness of the anti-cancer drug Cetuximab by 33 percent when her procedure is followed. She and Dr. Ferris are working to publish the study.

Robert Vaerewyck, the 16-year-old sophomore at St. Joseph High School in Natrona Heights, built an 18-inch-long model vehicle that he equipped with a Sterling engine. He then developed technology that uses pavement heat to cause "isothermal expansion" to make the engine piston rise, then lower when it cools. His vehicle can travel the length of 21/2 football fields in an hour. He hopes his technology can be incorporated into full-sized vehicles as a source of renewable energy, especially in warmer climates.

Natalie Nash, 17, of Allison Park, a senior at Vincentian Academy in Shaler, used her computer science skills to adapt the gaming sensor device in an X-Box to sense its environment in three dimensions. She wrote algorithms and used a new computer language to program her device.

When her system detects an obstruction, it produces a vibration on the iPhone pad that corresponds to the chair's location in the room. Once she learned how to use her own device, she comfortably navigated through a room while blindfolded, regardless of where her father had arranged the chairs. She's now programming the device to detect curbs and steps.

It's just a small sampling of what can be seen Thursday at the convention center.

"If you walk through the aisles at INTEL ISEF and talk with the kids and see what they have done, they are just darling," Ms. Hawkins said. "They are young, fresh, enthusiastic and bright, and it fills your heart and makes you feel that the world is going to be OK."

education - region - science

David Templeton: dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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