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Teen Scientists Display Notable Research


One feature of pretty much any science conference is the poster session. Researchers have perhaps three square meters on a display panel to present the words and pictures that will capture the attention of passersby and succinctly explain their work. At the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the AAAS, in San Francisco, some of the most notable posters came from some of the youngest scientists.

While presenting a poster may not have the high-profile visibility of giving a talk, it's still an honor and a recognition of the quality of your work.

The AAAS organized separate poster sessions for professional researchers and for university students, but nothing was more impressive than the highly competitive poster session sponsored by the American Junior Academy of Sciences for teenage researchers.

"My name is Julia Buzan. I'm from Cherry Creek High School in Denver, Colorado. And my science research project has to do with estimating the quality of a violin based on common characteristics in their wood vibrations."

Julia, a musician herself, set out to find an objective way of assessing a violin's sound quality. She recognized that actually playing the instrument would introduce too much variability as she pulled the bow across the strings. So instead, she used a tuning fork to replicate the vibration of the strings, and she found that a $12,000 violin continued to vibrate much longer than a cheap instrument.

"And that makes sense," she explained, "if you think about the way in which really nice violins play in concert halls, how their sound is sort of piercing all the way to the back of the auditorium and how each note vibrates for a very long period of time."

Her poster explains the methodology and is full of graphs showing her results. At just 16 years old, Julia says she plans a career in medicine, and hopes to do humanitarian work in developing countries.

Nearby, two young scientists from the Midwest presented their research on the runoff of agricultural chemicals into local streams. Haley Burgess and Shala Hawes, students at Central Lee High School in Donnellson, Iowa studied nitrates and phosphates in their local creeks and ponds.

With help from the University of Iowa Hygienic Lab, they designed an experiment to measure the chemical runoff in streams near farmland, and Haley Burgess, 17, says it was proportionate to the amount of land that drained into the stream. "The largest amount of nitrates and phosphate was found in the largest creek, which also had the largest amount of watershed. So that creek had the largest amount of everything, where the smallest creek had the smallest amount of watershed, nitrates and phosphates and all that."

Haley's partner, Shala Hawes says they also learned that the traditional method used by area farmers to protect the waterways is not the most effective. "Most of the farmers in our area use grass buffer strips because they're the easiest to plant, but we actually found out that tree buffer strips are the most effective in filtering the nitrous and phosphates out of the water."

Shala, 16, is aiming for a career in anthropology. But she participates in a wide range of school activities and denies she is a "science geek."

Some of the posters here are impressively good, says John Safko, physics professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina and an official of the group that oversees the Junior Academy of Sciences. "We have had research faculty go through our poster display, because it isn't always so clear that it's the American Junior Academy of Science, and think that they're looking at graduate papers. Our age group: we have one 13-year-old, and everyone else is 15-19."

One of the most professional high-school presentations came from a set of Vietnamese-American twins.

Richie Huynh, from Champlin Park High School, in Champlin. Minnesota, says the project is Alzheimer's Disease, brain atrophy and immuno-histochemical detections of neurofibrillary tangles using multiple antibodies.

Richie's partner and identical twin brother Ryan says they came up with their research topic through a chance contact at an international science fair, adding that Alzheimer's Disease is a satisfying topic to study.

"Well, both of us wanted to do research that would be pretty significant to society," said Ryan, "and Alzheimer's Disease is something that's very significant and is also very emotional and it affects people on many different levels, including personal levels, and so we thought we would like to do research on Alzheimer's Disease."

Both Ryan and Richie are aiming for careers in medical research, and they seem to have a good head start. Meanwhile, like many of the other high school students here, they say one of their biggest challenges right now is balancing time-consuming research with the rest of their very busy lives.