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SARSEF Fair award winners have been announced!

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Published Wednesday May 15, 2024

Meet the 2024 ISEF Finalists and Observers Selected at the SARSEF Regional Science and Engineering Fair

ISEF is well underway, and this year, SARSEF has a group of 11 students attending to present their research.

Nine high school students were awarded a Finalist spot at ISEF during the 2024 SARSEF Regional Fair in March:

  • Auhona Shil (University High School, Tucson, AZ) – Every day, humans are producing cancer cells but not everyone is developing cancer. One reason this could be happening is due to the phenomenon: mutational meltdown. The theory is that cancer cells develop so many mutations that they lose their fitness (survival and reproductive ability) to reproduce in the next generation. I am using population genetics and biochemistry tools to understand what the most harmful mutations are. From there, I am trying to understand how those cancer cells can be killed with the evolutionary process, mutational meltdown, which will help prevent the recurrence of cancer.
  • Finnegan McGill (Tanque Verde High School, Tucson, AZ) – Bird populations are declining worldwide. Ornithologists need quality data to understand why. A-BiRD is an automated bird recognition device. It uses a specific program to identify bird species and its own computer code and algorithms for direction finding and cueing. A-BiRD collects, processes, and analyzes data, day and night, 24/7, with consistent methods and without human intervention. A-BiRD is like a superhero for bird research.
  • Humberto Gil Villalobos and Michael Castro (Harvest Preparatory Academy, Yuma, AZ) –  Our project is making a weed barrier that can get rid of harmful bugs that is safe for the earth and people. The barrier stops bad plants from growing and repels bad insects.
  • Jimmy Kwon (BASIS Tucson North, Tucson, AZ) – When you open up deliveries at your doorstep, you will notice that they are mostly empty. My project uses a set of cameras, code, and artificial intelligence to quickly choose a different, smaller box, leading to less trashed cardboard.
  • Julianna Serna (Harvest Preparatory Academy, Yuma, AZ) – My project is aiming to make a bioplastic from the waste of corn and algae. By using these natural ingredients, my bioplastic will be able to help decrease plastic pollution and therefore help the environment because it will be stronger, fight bacteria, degrade and melt faster compared to a normal plastic.
  • Katherine Lam (University High School, Tucson, AZ) – I designed fluorescent nanoparticles to monitor intracellular signaling cascades. In other words, I used super-small, glowing submicron particles to take real-time images of living cells. I ultimately found that coating particles with a substance known as TMOS, or tetramethylorthosilicate, could produce highly water-stable and optically efficient nanoparticles.
  • Maritza Roberts (BASIS Tucson North, Tucson, AZ) – Two native saltbush seeds, Atriplex lentiformis and Atriplex canescens, showed that they can withstand very toxic concentrations of Zinc concentrations, while also sprouting under low nutrient exposure. Then, these seeds can be planted on soil contaminated by Zinc from mining waste, and once their roots grow, the shrubs stabilize the soil, reducing the spread of metal into our water, soil, and air.
  • Sohini Mallick (University High School, Tucson, AZ) – I am looking at how our bodies create a barrier to protect us from harmful bacteria.

We asked our ISEF finalists to share about their experiences in research.

What was the first science or engineering project you ever did?

The first project I ever created that really engaged with science was in 7th grade, back when I still studied in my school in Sonora, Mexico. I created a project that focused on explaining how chemistry element differences cause flames to burn different colors, and related this to emission spectra. – Maritza Roberts

As a little boy aggravated by the amount of bug bites I woke up to, I was captivated by the idea of capturing these pests. Seeing multiple blog posts explaining that the reaction of baking soda and vinegar attracts bugs, I rushed to the pantry and developed the mixture in a large plastic bottle. Although this science project never actually captured any bugs, the process of constructing my own scientific contraption was thrilling and ultimately piqued my interest in STEM projects. – Jimmy Kwon

I’ve participated in SARSEF and AZSEF since 6th Grade, researching different topics in Chemistry, Engineering, Animal Science, Computational Biology and Informatics. My very first project was a study on bacteria. I swabbed different surfaces at my school, nursed the bacteria in a warm environment on agar plates, and found out that the door handle of my school’s front office was actually more contaminated than the door handle of the boys’ bathroom! I also discovered that chemical cleaners with higher bleach content get rid of bacteria more efficiently than organic or vinegar-based cleaners. – Finnegan McGill

What is your advice for students just starting out in science or engineering projects?

My advice for students just starting a project is to do what makes you happy and what you enjoy. The reason is that otherwise, you will find it difficult to do research and finish your project. You will get bored of it. – Michael Castro

Science is mostly problem-solving. During whatever project you are doing, you will face many challenges, and you might even have to start over again. But instead of feeling frustrated, think about it as a way to look at the problem from a new perspective you may not have considered, and stay consistent until you can solve the problem. Science is also a collaboration of multiple ideas. Discuss your project with other people to gain their insights on it, because they may look at your project from a different aspect and provide you with solutions you may never have thought of, or give you new ideas to expand your project even more. – Sohini Mallick

Go in expecting science to be nonlinear. The Scientific Method always seems so cut and dried: you ask a question, form a hypothesis, design an experiment, etc. However, it doesn’t account for the countless hours spent doing background research, or troubleshooting equipment, or completely rejecting hypotheses. That’s all part of the learning process, and it’s honestly part of what makes science so thoroughly rewarding. Each setback is an opportunity to grow. – Katherine Lam

My advice is to seek mentorship if you are able to. If you have any clubs or classes at your school where you might be able to have a mentor on your subject, or perhaps even a teacher you know well, talk to them if they might be able to mentor you with your research, because professional feedback never hurts. Always take advantage of any mentorship opportunities you come across with, I assure you they will make a difference. Another advice I would give other young students who are on their pathway to success in STEM, is to always trust your capacity to succeed. If your project is about something you are truly passionate about and something that you care for, you should fight for it and believe in it.  Even if you are not incredibly good in the subject, there is always time and space to learn! ­– Julianna Serna

What was the most exciting moment of doing your project, and what was the most challenging?

The most exciting moment of doing my project was when I had to think outside the box in order to answer my research question. I learned that I had to intersect my tools and use a little piece from many scientific fields including statistics, biochemistry, population genetics, and oncology. The most challenging part of my project was developing my research question because it was hard to narrow down what I wanted to do specifically. – Auhona Shil

The most exciting part of my project was molding the bioplastic into the plastic cutlery, especially the spoons! We utilized a silicone mold used to make chocolate spoons, and while I was pouring the bioplastic formula into the molds I felt like a cook who was doing some sort of dessert; the entire process was very fun. The most challenging part for me was utilizing the statistical analysis programs, like the Image J program. Even though this is my third year working with this project, it still gets a little challenging to get used to them again at the beginning. However, after my mentor goes through the whole process with me, I get used to it and it becomes easier. – Julianna Serna

The most exciting moments were definitely the times when I learned something new and could actually apply my knowledge to my project, including some of the engineering, the technology, the computer coding, and the data processing. I knew nothing about these areas before starting my project and I still cannot quite believe how far I’ve come by learning, not giving up, and finding the answers to my many questions. There were so many big challenges that I faced. Creating A-BiRD was a tough journey filled with technical issues and handling lots of data. I had to learn the necessary advanced math and coding from scratch, troubleshoot problems quickly, and refine the system to detect bird sounds in natural places. I mentored my two younger brothers so they could help me with the huge data processing. I felt like giving up many times, but I persevered and learned the importance of continuous improvement. My family and really caring neighbors were key factors in overcoming the difficulties. They all believed in me and my ideas and helped me through tough times. They always cheered me on and asked good questions that made me think further. Their support meant everything to me. – Finnegan McGill

The most exciting and challenging parts of my project revolve around the coding aspect. It’s impossible for me to point to one specific part of the code as challenging because, frankly, a lot of it was challenging. Instead, I would point to the daily grind, marked by a series of long nights and early mornings, as the most challenging aspect of this project. However, the sheer happiness and excitement that results from the code outputting the desired outcome makes the entire process so, so worth it. – Jimmy Kwon

Is there anything else you would want to share in a blog post about you and your fellow ISEF finalists?

ISEF is one of my favorite experiences ever! The people you meet, the events, the food (!!!) are so memorable, and I will always be grateful to SARSEF for this experience! – Jimmy Kwon

As a Mexicana and Latina in STEM, I understand the importance of visibility in a field where many other BIPOC students have been historically underrepresented in. On YouTube and Instagram I direct content on @maritzastudies, leading a podcast titled Cientifica Discussions, which highlights current high school trailblazers that have diverse science interests. These students are Latinas in STEM who have won international and national distinctions for their work in fields like astrophysics, biology, neuroscience, computer science, entrepreneurship, and chemistry. Ultimately, each Latine student shares how they have achieved success and describes their non-linear path within science. – Maritza Roberts

The first science fair project that I completed in my local science fair was in 6th grade. After moving to Tucson, I was amazed by the majestic Saguaro Cacti. However, on my second day of school, I saw three students puncturing cacti with their pencils. That year, I conducted a research project to explore how bacterial necrosis in Saguaro cactus develops and created a claymation video which I showcased to other classes. This was the first time that I began seeing science as a solution to help the community. Since then, I have done SARSEF projects on everything from environmental science to gender/ethnic studies through bioinformatics. No matter what branch of science I am researching, I always see science as a way to solve problems and positively impact our community. With this mindset, I have been able to be proud and wholeheartedly satisfied with the work that I continue to do. – Auhona Shil

Being an ISEF finalist is one of my biggest achievements and greatest honors. Preparing for the competition taught me how to talk about science in an effective way and how important time management and practice is. My fellow ISEF finalists are amazing and such experts in their fields. It’s quite intimidating to think about! During this experience I have made a lot of connections with others and I have become more confident. Meeting other researchers motivated me and gave me new ideas. I made great friends and felt like part of a community. The experience at SARSEF, AZSEF, JSHS, and now ISEF has made me feel like a real scientist and researcher for the first time. – Finnegan McGill

For the first time in five years, SARSEF is also sending two top 8th graders to ISEF as student observers. Noemi Celani (Emily Gray Middle School, Tucson, AZ) and Alexis Batres (R Pete Woodard Jr High School, Yuma, AZ) won the top middle school project awards at the SARSEF Fair, winning the SARSEF Excellence in Research and SARSEF Board of Directors Community Impact Award, respectively, which include an all-expenses paid trip to ISEF. We asked our middle school observers a few questions about their research as well.

Please explain your project to someone who does not have a science background.

My project was finding what medication was best for people that have Adrenal Insufficiency. – Alexis Batres

I looked at the way plants communicate, and how they react to different companion plants to support their growth. I gave a study plant’s roots a choice between another plant (this could be the same species as the study plant, a native and compatible plant, or a compatible but not native plant), or a pot with just soil. My findings contradict what was previously known about plant’s growing habits (that they will always move away from each other), but instead suggests that plants are specific in their growing habits and will make decisions based on the type of neighbor next to them.  – Noemi Celani  

What is your advice for students just starting out in science or engineering projects?

I would say never give up. It may be challenging, you may never win anything, but do the project for your love and curiosity of the subject, do it to learn something. – Noemi Celani

What was the most exciting moment of doing your project, and what was the most challenging?

The most exciting moment of doing my project was testing the pH of the gastric juice after letting the pill set in the juice for 30 minutes. – Alexis Batrea

I think the most exciting thing was doing the results, turning numbers into something that shows plant growing habits. I think the most challenging thing was the weather. Since I was working with plants I could not predict that there was going to be a huge hail storm killing two of my plants.   – Noemi Celani

In this video, ISEF observer Noemi Celani captures the moment that ISEF Finalists selected at the SARSEF Fair leave the judging floor.