Russell and Westfield students win prizes at regional science fair and qualify to advance
SPRINGFIELD — While a student of Pope Francis from Russell won the grand prize at the Region IV science fair at the University of Western New England on March 10, Westfield High School students also did very well, with a first place, one second place and six third place winners.
The Sanofi Specialty Grand Prize was awarded to Elizabeth Hanechak de Russell, a second-year student at Pope Francis Preparatory School in Springfield. Hanechak’s biochemistry project, “Removal of a disulfide bridge by site director mutagenesis to tailor cutinase for the biodegradation of polyethylene terephthalate,” won him a spot at the International Science and Engineering Fair in Dallas, Texas in May.
Presenting her project in plain language, Hanechak explained that her main focus was on finding a practical solution to the problem of plastic disposal. She said recycling doesn’t really work because less than 4% of the 51 million tons of plastic in the United States is recycled each year. Incineration doesn’t work either, as it’s well known that burning plastic releases toxic chemicals. Hanechak said biodegradation uses natural microorganisms to break down plastic, but it’s very slow and time-consuming, which also makes this solution impractical.
“My research was trying to improve an enzyme that degrades plastic, to make it work faster and more efficiently,” she said, adding that the experiment went pretty well, “beyond that. than I expected – my mutations degraded the samples 55% better than [others]. One of them degraded an entire plastic sample in 24 hours.
Hanechak said Pope Francis didn’t have a high school science fair, so she did the research on her own, reading science journals for months before coming up with the idea for the research proposal. She worked with a microbiology professor at Westfield State University on the project as an independent research student, funded by her mother, she said.
Hanechak said Pope Francis had been very supportive, giving him access to most scientific journals and time off to go to the lab. They will also give him a week off to go to the International Science Fair in Dallas.
“Science is everything to me,” Hanechak said. Regarding the plastic issue, she said, “It’s really scary to think about the future, but it’s exciting to see people working on it. It gives you new hope, that all is not lost.
Westfield High School junior Milana Camilleri won first place in biology with a cover of her award-winning project from last year’s science fair on “Testing the effectiveness of celebrity-endorsed facial cleansers against dermatologist-approved facial cleansers (part 2).”
For Camilleri, exposing misleading marketing was as important as evaluating the effectiveness of facial cleansers. In the description of her project, she writes: “The marketing technique of celebrity endorsements is gaining more and more importance in society, allowing products such as facial cleansers to be bought at prices by consumers, ignoring their price inflation or efficiency. They believe that using these celebrity endorsed products will reflect their socially accepted and attractive features on themselves. This experiment strives to compare celebrity and dermatologist-approved facial cleansers when eliminating K-12 E. coli. This data will eliminate the potential misinformation behind glorified facial products while providing the most cost effective and powerful cleanser against acne bacteria (Propionibacteriumria).
Camilleri won a National Geographic “That’s Geography” award for her project at last year’s science fair, and has continued to explore the same subject this year.
“I’ve always had an interest in math and biology, which sparked my interest in medicine,” said Camilleri, who is beginning to scour potential colleges and finalizing her list based on schools with the best pre-med and “BS-MD” programs – tracks that lead directly to medical school from undergraduate coursework.
Camilleri said part of what drew her to this project was wanting to explore a particular medical specialty, which could help her choose a path of study and career in medicine.
“The one I explored [last year] is based on dermatology,” she said. In this year’s continuation project, she included two new factors – ingredient proportions, which she said were not measurable due to variation in the products’ top five ingredients; and unit price, or price per fluid ounce, to measure their profitability.
Last year, Camilleri also competed in the regional and national competitions, although she said she did not go further in the national competition.
“I hope to do better this year,” she said.
Other winners of the Westfield Prize include the second winner of the Biology Prize, Wunnyuriti Ziblim, with his project “Maximizing microbial metabolism in the rhizosphere to generate electric current”. Ziblim also won an award from the New England branch of the American Society for Microbiology.
The following Westfield High School students won third place:
Luke Bulan for “inventing a cheap and comfortable yet effective phototherapy blanket for babies”.
Teagan Chisholm-Godshalk for “Thriving Harvest with Sparing Materials: Comparing Solanum Iycopersicum Growth Between Daily Growth and Hydroponics.”
John Doyle for “Using Portable Solar Energy to Power Electronic Devices in Remote Locations”.
Sydney Drugan for “Does the presence and concentration of volcanic ash in the soil affect plant growth?” »
Ciara Johnson-Corwin for “Finding Which Worm Biodegrades Styrofoam Fastest.”
Nora Scott and Alexis Masciadrelli for “How do disinfectants work against germs/bacteria/viruses?”
Doyle also won a Westfield Gas & Electric Power Plus award. All winners qualified to participate in the state science fair at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on May 6.