Interview with Brilliant Female Scientists Who Break Barriers at World’s Largest Science Fair, ISEF 2019

Allison Jia

Allison Jia, 17, of San Jose, CA, received the Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award of $50,000 for her investigation into toxic tau protein aggregates, which spread in neurons in the human brain and are associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

1. How did you decide what project to work on for the competition?

I attended a summer program in 2017 where I learned various modules in the fields of tissue engineering, cellular biology and nanoscience. Learning about the protein tau (responsible for providing structural support in the cell) and its role in neurodegeneration (specifically, mutated tau’s ability to propagate from cell to cell) particularly stood out to me as its incredible potential. So when I learned that the theory of tau propagation had never been visually traced and coincidentally learned that the nanoparticles I was using in the nanoscience unit could be applied for live imaging, I discussed with the program’s host professor about creating a system to visualize this important step in neurodegeneration. At the end of the program, I was lucky to be chosen as one of two students to continue working in her lab throughout the following years.  

2. What childhood experiences do you think helped encourage your passion for STEM fields?

As a sixth grader, I watched the Chinese TV Show, The Brain, every weekend with my family. I was struck by the wonders of the brain. Adults, teens, and other kids my age could solve impossible puzzles and calculations in the blink of an eye, while I struggled to finish my math homework in under two hours.

Naturally, I was curious to see how their brains processed these complicated tasks, what made their brains so unique, and how I could train my own brain to be just like them. My interest in the brain was only furthered by the countless science summer camps and biology classes I took throughout middle school, where I had the chance to dissect my first brain. These resources, along with the encouragement I received from my parents and mentors, definitely helped shape my passion in STEM. Actually, one of my biggest dreams is to provide equal access to these wonderful opportunities for other young, aspiring scientists.

Amara Ifeji

Amara Ifejifrom Bangor High School was awarded the Best of Category Award in Plant Sciences. During her research, Amara explored how plants are able to take up nutrients from the soil, and how some of their nutrients are actually toxic when abundant, such as certain heavy metals. Her project looks at whether or not having fungi present in the plant roots help them remove these toxins better. 

1. How did you decide what project to work on for the competition?

The summer before my sophomore year, I was presented with the opportunity to attend the Stormwater Management and Research Team Institute at my state’s flagship university (The University of Maine). At the time, I didn’t know much about water quality, but I decided to attend nonetheless because it sounded pretty cool. I am so glad I made the decision to go because, at the institute, I discovered that I have a deep passion for water quality. I was inspired by the water crisis going on in Flint, Michigan and my passion for water quality to design an experiment that would target the pressing issue of heavy metal pollution.  

2. What childhood experiences do you think helped encourage your passion for STEM fields?

My mother often tells me about how inquisitive I was as a child. I’d ask her these random questions about the way things work and would always follow up with yet another question: ‘why?’ I think this desire of mine to understand the world around me is really what inspired my love for STEM. My love for the environment came about when I first visited Acadia National Park at the age of nine. I remember staring out over the edge of Cadillac Mountain in awe at how beautiful it all was. At that moment, I knew that I wanted to play a role in preserving the environment and keeping it the way Mother Nature intended. 

Hannah Herbst

Hannah Herbstfrom Florida Atlantic University High School in Boca Raton was awarded theISEF Best of Category Award in Translational Medicine, for her project, titled “Sharks Take a Bite Out of Infection! An Antibacterial, Reusable Bandage for Post-Operative Patients.

1. How did you decide what project to work on for the competition?

Last year, my dad had an emergency operation that led to a surgical site infection. Surgical site infections increase patient pain, time in the hospital, and medical expenses. Unfortunately I learned that my dad’s case was not unique; there are over 200 million surgical site post-operative infections every year. These infections contribute to problems such as 5.9 million tons of medical waste that are disposed of each year, over $3 trillion of annual US healthcare debt, and antibiotic resistant “superbugs,” which are becoming increasingly prevalent throughout the world.

At the time of my dad’s operation, I was working in the Florida Atlantic Biomechanics Lab, under Marianne Porter, studying the tensile properties of shark skin, specifically how the skin’s micropattern (called the dermal denticle micropattern) would impact the strength of the surface. Scientists have hypothesized that these dermal denticles have antibacterial properties. I wondered how I could test this hypothesis, and take shark skin’s micro-pattern out of the water for use on bandages to prevent post-operative infections.  

2. What childhood experiences do you think helped encourage your passion for STEM?

The summer before I began seventh grade, my dad enrolled me in an engineering camp at Florida Atlantic University. Leading up to that summer, I had no interest in science or math, and saw them as nothing more than subjects that we read about in textbooks at school. I remember walking into the engineering camp and quickly realizing that I was the only girl in the room. Despite my apprehension, my dad told me to try the camp for one day, and that if I didn’t enjoy it, I didn’t have to return. Even though I was the only girl, I was quickly accepted and encouraged by the boys, and returned every day to build robots and learn about computer programming. That week was transformative, and showed me that science is a platform to help make the world better by solving problems. This shift in perspective never would have happened without my dad’s encouragement. I am so thankful to him and my family!  

Shriya Reddy

Shriya Reddy, 15, of Northville, MI, was awarded the newly announced Craig R. Barrett Award for Innovation of $10,000 for her novel, noninvasive approach for rapidly diagnosing melanoma lesions.

1. How did you decide what project to work on for the competition?

I have always wanted to research cancer. The disease effects such a vast array of people, and in turn, takes millions of lives each year. The thought of creating a solution, that could save even one of those lives, is my motivation. I pursued access to a lab as soon as I could and managed to start work on a simple project. While working on the basic experiment, an imaging device, Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT), soon began to capture my interest. I began to do some research on this machine and found out that while used clinically for eye exams, OCT was not used for skin imaging at all. I was so bewildered because the qualities of OCT seemed to be perfect for the skin! That’s when I realized that I could work on this problem and that’s how my project was born. 

2. What childhood experiences do you think helped encourage your passion for STEM fields?

I credit my STEM focus to a natural aptitude in the math and sciences and to a school experience more tailored to STEM than to the humanities. One of my most prominent early memories is of a long reading I completed in the second grade: “Sewed Up His Heart.” It was the story about the first open heart surgery. I remember, the surgeon, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, washed the patient’s heart in 100˚F water and fixed a nick on the heart’s surface. The patient survived and I was amazed. Along with my academic interests, science fair has been a part of my life since the first grade. Beyond just learning facts in the classroom, science fair has always been my way to apply knowledge to a real-life situation. STEM has always surrounded me, at school and at home. Thus, it has become a solid part of who I am.  

Rachel Seevers

Rachel Seevers, 17, of Lexington, KY, received one of two Intel Foundation Young Scientist Awards of $50,000 for designing, building, and testing a rigid, energy-efficient prototype of an underwater propulsion device that mimics the way jellyfish move through the water. 

1. How did you decide what project to work on for the competition?

About five years ago I was on an airplane, and looked out the window to see giant white streaks hovering over the wings. I had no idea what they were, but was sure that they meant my imminent death. I thought we were going to crash, but turns out it was just condensation in the air. This experience made me realize that I had no idea how airplanes flew. My curiosity launched into a five-year journey of questioning and discovery that led me to the invention of my new plane wing design.  

A year ago I had the incredible opportunity to tour a naval base where they did research on real-life submarines. I got hooked and once again let my curiosity lead me. I found out that submarines are a lot like planes, just underwater, and that there was cutting-edge research being done on the biomimicry of jellyfish. Combining all these aspects and my prior research in aerospace engineering, I came up with a new propulsion device for submarines that improves efficiency by mirroring the movement of a jellyfish.  

2. What childhood experiences do you think helped encourage your passion for STEM fields?

I have a sister who is three years older than me, and she is one of my greatest inspirations. Having a role model like her showed me that kids and young adults can make an impact in the world and that women in STEM actually belong. It’s rare that I see other girls involved in my research area and sometimes it can feel like you’re pretty alone, but having my sister has showed me that I can do anything. My parents always had us doing science experiments in the basement or camping out in the backyard. We learned to question everything. It was really a family endeavor. 

International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) is a competition produced by the Society for Science & the Public.

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