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EDUCATION: SMART RESOURCES FOR STUDENTS AND PARENTS

Winner Has Science Fairs Down to a Science

June 08, 1998|ROBERTO J. MANZANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Whether she is doing science research, practicing ballet or perfecting flamenco steps, Marin McDonald excels. The 17-year-old Villa Park High senior who has won numerous awards recently was named California Science Student of the Year at the state science fair.

McDonald spent much of the last two years refining her winning project, which studied people's damaging effects on a type of seaweed that plays an important role in protecting ocean wildlife.

Accompanied by friends or graduate students, McDonald often visited coastal sites in the middle of cold nights during low tide. Wearing a headlamp, she lugged buckets of seawater and bags of a rockweed called Pelvetia compressa, which protects species that live on the ocean bottom.

"In general, where there's more human use, the damage is worse . . . ," said McDonald. "It's so fragile."

Yet McDonald's research has not been limited to her more immediate surroundings, or even to the United States. She has also done lab work in a small town in Russia. There, she said, she also learned valuable survival phrases in Russian such as: "I am American," "Get away from me," "Where's the bathroom?," and "I have no money."

In the fall, she heads to Stanford University, where she plans to major in biology. An accomplished debater, she also wants to study science communications. McDonald shared her science fair expertise and explained what it takes to win at science competitions.

Question: How did you get the idea for your project?

Answer: My high school science teacher remembered that Dr. Steven Murray, the director of the Coastal Marine Ecology Lab at Cal State Fullerton, had taken another high school science student [under his research wing, which studies human effects on the ocean.]

I had to track Dr. Murray down. When he first took me, he said: "You're interested in science. I've got the resources. I'll show you what I've got." He helped me structure [the project].

The project has practical applications. I could do it, get the results. This has meaning to people: Look what we're doing to our coast--this is life, conservation, really meaty things that have importance.

The [rockweed] was picked because it's a fleshy seaweed, susceptible to effects from trampling. Also it's exposed during low tide, and it doesn't recover or reproduce quickly . . . it's a good indicator because it's very abundant in Southern California.

Q: What makes for a good science project idea? Does it have to be original?

A: I don't think originality has a lot to do with it. Good science comes from duplication and repeated tests. . . . [A good idea is] anything that will answer cohesively and concretely with the scientific method a question that we have.

Q: Why don't other science projects win?

A: It has to do with how you present it. A lot of it is communicating, the style of the project . . . . The emphasis often is to know what [judges] are looking for. They can be capricious. Because your work was sloppy doesn't mean it was bad.

The judges are really good as methodology goes, but you don't know what they're looking for sometimes. They want a good project that's coherent. They want that you be interested and interesting, that you know how to present data in concise terms. . . . Science is also communicating data as quickly and cohesively as possible. . . .

My project appeals to judges on different levels. It has global importance and significance. . . . It's not incredibly complex. It's a very straightforward project, which also has appeal to judges.

Q: How many hours did it take you to complete your project?

A: About 600 hours. . . . It takes a lot of time, getting your presentations down. You have to catch their eye. . . . I'm very animated. . . . I make eye contact, I don't read from notes. I make my work come alive. . . . I love my project, and I love what I have done and communicate that to judges.

Q. How did researching your project make you a better scientist?

A: I don't think I had a good idea of what it meant to do science before this project. It means taking work home with you, doing science when you don't feel like it. It means dedication, perseverance, also a commitment to honesty. You want good science. Your work means nothing if you fudge it. . . .

It's taught me how to communicate with people who don't really know what's going on in my research. You have break it down. It's taught me how to make it real and tangible for others.

Q: What materials did you use?

A: It was not highly technical. I used buckets, seawater, scissors. The methods of collecting were nothing I couldn't do myself. It required a lot of manpower. . . . We did experiments on seaweed in plots. Once per month we would visit the plot. It's an incredible amount of work. . . .

You should go where your heart tells you to go. If you like working with technical stuff, go for it. There's no limit to what high school students can do.

Q: Do you have advice for other students on how to win at a science fair?

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