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SARSEF Fair award winners have been announced!

See the winner list
Published Wednesday April 27, 2022

Meet ISEF Finalists Selected at the SARSEF Fair

We were in awe of the incredible science and engineering projects that students from across Arizona completed this school year! If you haven’t had an opportunity to see them yet, be sure to visit

SARSEF is one of three affiliated fairs in Arizona that selects the top high school projects at their Science and Engineering Fair to represent Arizona at the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (Regeneron ISEF). Projects from all over the world attend to compete at ISEF as the next generation of innovators!

At this year’s fair, eight high school students were selected to attend ISEF: Christopher Miranda (Harvest Preparatory Academy), Arjun Gupta (Quest for Education and Arts), Karah Mayer (Tanque Verde High School), Nathaniel van der Leeuw and Lily Wood (University High School), Alexander Nelson (Nelson Home School), Yaritza Durazo (Sunnyside High School), Ashley Valencia (Harvest Preparatory Academy), Julianna Serna-Ortiz (Harvest Preparatory Academy).

We had the opportunity to interview them recently to learn about their experiences in research and at the fair. Scroll to the bottom of this post to find the list of winners including links to their projects in our virtual exhibit hall!

What inspired you to do your research project?

Ashely Valencia: I have always felt drawn to the sciences and while in high school I found out about all the different science fairs. This year I wanted to do a project that not only could help my community, but the entire world. Furthermore, I hope to pursue a career in the field of medicine and I decided to look into world health problems. I found out that roughly 3.4 billion individuals worldwide, are affected by oral diseases, especially in third world countries. I wanted to research ways to prevent some of these diseases.

Alexander Nelson: I have studied plant sciences throughout my high school research, with a particular interest in how plants respond under unfavorable conditions.  After meeting my mentors Dr. Cedar Warman and Dr. Ravishankar Palanivelu through the STAR Lab, and learning about their research, I was fascinated and wanted to pursue research alongside their studies.

Lily Wood: I had the opportunity to learn MATLab last summer and I wanted a project that would allow me to use it. I was also interested in learning more about global warming, especially living here in Tucson where it is already hot.

Julianna Serna-Ortiz: The current solutions for plastic pollution, PLA and oxo-biodegradable plastics, are found to be inefficient since they require a special composting facility to biodegrade. In this project I am trying to create a new biodegradable plastic with anitmicrobial properties that can be greatly beneficial for the environment. 

What’s something unexpected you learned while doing your research?

Ashley Valencia: Oral diseases affect a despicable amount of people around the world. People should not be ashamed of their smile just because they lack the resources. That is why I decided to focus on this topic.

Alexander Nelson: This year, I studied in vitro pollen growth and in vivo flower measurements. Through the guidance of my mentors, I learned how to integrate my subsequent findings into meaningful analyses using coding languages. This was a new experience and I learned many valuable skills in the process.

Julianna Serna-Ortiz: Out of all the different things I learned through the process of my research, what surprised me the most was that I can make a plastic out of algae and corn! When I heard about this experiment, I really couldn’t believe it was possible to do such thing, and still, when people hear about my project they look at me confused which I think is so funny. 

What has ISEF meant for you?

Ashley Valencia: ISEF will be a wonderful opportunity and experience for me. ISEF opens up many opportunities that were not available to me without it. I am very excited to hear and see all of the amazing research projects everybody has done this year.

Alexander Nelson: Throughout my childhood, ISEF has been an icon of scientific excellence that I have strived to achieve.  In essence, ISEF was a microcosm of all my future goals all wrapped up in one week. My desire to attend ISEF spawned many of my projects, culminating in three finalist presentations throughout high school. I am immeasurably grateful to all those who have helped me make this dream a possibility.

Julianna Serna-Ortiz: Getting to attend ISEF is a massive privilege and honestly my biggest achievement in my life as of now. I couldn’t be more grateful to all the people who gave me the chance to participate in this magnificent event and let me represent the state of Arizona. All I can say is thank you to all the people of ISEF who work really hard to give us students this amazing privilege of getting to be there and participate! 

What words of advice or encouragement do you want to share with other student scientists?

Ashley Valencia: As a first-generation student I feel like I should do  something important with my life because my parents never had the opportunities and resources we have available to us now. I want my parents to feel proud of me. While doing this research project I have been given many fantastic opportunities, like scholarships, extracurriculars, experience, Traveling, etc. What I want to say is that you should do something you love doing and feel proud of. Dream Big. Anything is possible if you set your mind to it!

Alexander Nelson: Allow me to preface: doing ‘good science’ is difficult, requiring lots of critical thinking and hard work.  But, if you commit yourself to following the scientific process from start to finish, you are in for the ride of your life.  Nothing is as exhilarating as conducting your own scientific review, formulating hypotheses, and watching them come to life through your own research. It’s worth the commitment.

Julianna Serna-Ortiz: If you’re doing something that you truly passionately love and you really, but genuinely, think that you can change the world with your idea, I’d just say go for it an don’t be afraid of making mistakes because that is just a sign that you’re slowly getting there.  

ISEF Finalists Selected at the SARSEF Fair

Christopher Miranda, Grade 10

Harvest Preparatory Academy, Yuma, AZ

Exogeneous Niacin and Zeaxanthin Treatment to Increase the Stress Tolerance and Light Absorbance Capacity of Microalgae Chlorella Vulgaris Under an Engineered Martian Environment

Arjun Gupta, Grade 11

Quest for Education and Arts, Tucson, AZ

Nouveau-AI-Plastic-Degen: A novel approach using AI-based enzyme engineering to design New and Highly Efficient Marine Plastic Degrading Enzymes

Karah Mayer, Grade 12

Tanque Verde High School, Tucson, AZ

Rare Immune Cells Significantly Associated with Severe COVID-19 Cases

Nathaniel van der Leeuw and Lily Wood, Grade 11

University High School, Tucson, AZ

Contemporary and Projected Climate Changes across the Southwestern United States Relative to the Last 24,000 Years

Alexander Nelson, Grade 12

Nelson Home School, Tucson, AZ

Analysis of Pollen-pistil Interactions to Model Reproductive Thermotolerance in Tomato

Yaritza Durazo, Grade 12

Sunnyside High School, Tucson, AZ

Exploration of Chaotic Orbits Using the Lyapunov Exponent in the Restricted Three-Body Problem

Ashley Valencia, Grade 10

Harvest Preparatory Academy, Yuma, AZ

Improving the Dental Health in Developing Countries with a Toothpaste Infused with Psidium Guajava and Acmella Oleracea Extracts Against Tooth Decay Causing Bacteria Streptococcus Mutans

Julianna Serna-Ortiz, Grade 10

Harvest Preparatory Academy, Yuma, AZ

Engineering of Antimicrobial Bioplastics From Invasive Algae Caulerpa Prolifera, Undaria Pinnatifida, and Waste Corn Cobs

Interested in supporting SARSEF and our work creating Arizona’s future critical thinkers and problem solvers through science and engineering?

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