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Rewards do come from their scientific methods

L.A. science fair recognizes students' world-class projects with prize money.

May 14, 2011|Amina Khan

It was a passion for surfing that helped lead Adrienne McColl to the final round of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles this week.

The 18-year-old senior at the San Pedro High School Marine Science Magnet had to put away her surfboard after fracturing her back twice during her sophomore year.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, May 15, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Science fair: In the May 14 LATExtra section, an article about the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles, in describing a student's award-winning nuclear weapons detector, referred to a rare helium isotope as having three protons. In fact, the isotope has two protons and one neutron.

To stay close to the water, she began investigating ways to restore the falling population of California spiny lobsters, focusing her efforts on keeping lobster larvae alive long enough to have a decent shot at reaching adulthood. After more than 2,500 hours of painstaking work, she broke the record for keeping the larvae alive in a lab: 179 days, more than two months longer than professional scientists had been able to manage.

It wasn't enough to win the competition's top prize -- that honor went to Matthew Feddersen and Blake Marggraff of Lafayette in the Bay Area, who figured out a way to potentially make radiation treatments more effective for cancer patients by placing tin near their tumors. The seniors from Acalanes High School shared the Gordon E. Moore Award and a total of $83,000 in prize money for scholarships.

But McColl was named winner of the animal sciences division for her project, "Effects of Food Types on Survival and Development of Larval California Spiny Lobsters, Panulirus interruptus."

When she heard her name announced Friday from among a field of more than 1,500 finalists from as far away as Argentina, Kazakhstan, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, dozens of fellow students from California stood up and cheered. "It was just so overwhelming," she said.

If the very notion of a science fair conjures images of baking-soda volcanoes and plants growing under colored light bulbs, think again. The exhibits on display at the fair, a program of the Society for Science and the Public held at the Los Angeles Convention Center, tackled problems as varied as asteroid detection, biofuel production and nuclear proliferation. The fair draws students from around the world who have demonstrated an aptitude for scientific research.

"I think anybody who's into science wants to be able to apply themselves to something that matters," McColl said. McColl, who won $8,000 in scholarship money, said she'll be studying aquaculture and fisheries next year at the University of Washington.

For Dianna Hu, her struggle with spinal muscular atrophy inspired her to create a computer model to analyze the genetic mutations that cause the degenerative disease. Her model simulates the mistakes made by key proteins that put her in a wheelchair. She identified a problem that could be partly responsible for distorting parts of those crucial proteins.

"It's so personal for me," said Hu, an 18-year-old senior from Dix Hills, N.Y., who won the top prize and $8,000 in the biochemistry division. "If [researchers] have a sense of motivation that's very personal to them, that can produce some of the best efforts -- and some of the best advancements -- in the field."

She hopes to continue her research next year as a Harvard University freshman.

Taylor Wilson, a 17-year-old junior from Reno, won one of the top three awards for building an inexpensive nuclear weapons detector whose main ingredient is water. His invention improves on today's standard-issue neutron detectors, which rely on a rare helium isotope that has three protons instead of the usual two. Instead, Wilson's detector uses water to pick up signs of the presence of plutonium isotopes, a key component of nuclear weapons.

"I love solving problems," said Wilson, whose parents work in business, not engineering. The high school junior plans to patent his award-winning device and said he'd like to use some of his $58,000 in prize money to buy radioactive materials for his work.

Marian Bechtel, a self-described hippie from Lancaster, Pa., got the idea for her land-mine detector while playing the piano. She noticed that when she hit certain chords, a banjo hanging on the wall would resonate -- and realized she could use the same principle to search for underground mines. She won a $1,000 third-place prize in the electrical and mechanical engineering category.

"I'd love to see this used for humanitarian purposes," said Bechtel, whose cousins in Mozambique live with the threat of mine explosions every day.

Not all of the projects were so weighty. Aseem Mishra, a 17-year-old senior from Hull, England, earned a trip across the Atlantic for building a drum kit into his pants. He drew crowds as he tapped out rhythms on his thighs and even inspired a fellow student to hop into his booth for an impromptu freestyle session.

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amina.khan@latimes.com

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