Annual Science Fair Continues Virtually, and Eight Interns Win Prizes

By Samuel Lopez, staff writer; images contributed by Colleen Beall
Logo for the science fair. It says, "40th Annual Secondary Science and Engineering Fair" in white text on a mottled green background

Eight Werner H. Kirsten (WHK) student interns took home awards at this year’s Frederick County Science and Engineering Fair, a virtual competition between local middle and high school students with a passion for the sciences.

The event hosted 70 students who created 64 projects, including 28 high school students who submitted 25 projects. Together, the WHK interns who won awards comprised nearly one-third of participating high schoolers.

This was the 40th year of the competition—and the second that it was held virtually due to the pandemic. Fortunately, the event went smoother and was more interactive than in 2020, thanks to more time to prepare this year, said event coordinator Colleen Beall, secondary science curriculum specialist for Frederick County Public Schools.

Students’ projects were displayed on RocketJudge, an online competition platform, in PowerPoint format, accompanied by a short video of the student explaining the project. Students could also submit a handful of optional materials. Three days before the Saturday of the competition, the more than 60 judges began reviewing the entries. Then, on the day of the competition, three teams of judges interviewed each student live via RocketJudge. Awards were later announced in an online ceremony.

“We based all of our components on what the [Regeneron] International Science and Engineering Fair is requiring,” Beall said. The Frederick fair is one of five in Maryland affiliated with the Regeneron fair, a larger, top-tier competition that draws teams from approximately 75 countries each year.

The smoother execution didn’t mean there weren’t occasional hiccups, however, as WHK intern Elizabeth Willman discovered. Connection issues prevented her from sharing her screen during the interviews, so the judges couldn’t see her PowerPoint.

“I adapted by presenting my project verbally, without the aid of the PowerPoint, which may have been harder but demonstrated a greater understanding of the material,” she said.

Glitches aside, Willman’s confident presentation and project, a study of scientific publications on lung cancer and its treatment methods, still took third place in the Biomedical and Health Sciences category.

“I was motivated to take this project to the science fair to help educate others on lung cancer and to show individuals outside of NCI that even with COVID-19 [ongoing], I was still able to learn a lot through the WHK internship this year,” she said.

WHK intern Adam Teixeira said the competition “was good as far as virtual can go” and saw it as a chance to look at his project, an analysis of higher concentrations of neutrophil cells in dead regions of 4T1 tumors than in active regions, in a new light.

“I was asked tons of great questions by the judges, which gave me a better insight to how people not in my lab would look at my research,” he said. “I was also asked questions I didn’t have an immediate answer for, which made me think about different aspects of my project.”

In addition to the seemingly countless hours spent on his project, Teixeira dedicated a week to work with his fellow lab members and his mentor, Stephen Lockett, Ph.D., to refine his presentation. It paid off—he took first place in the Biomedical and Health Sciences category.

“It feels pretty good to get first place in a category I’m passionate about and put lots of effort into,” he said.

Taeeun Kim and Ella Fitzgerald, a pair of WHK interns who teamed up for the competition, also spent months working on their project, an analysis of 3D images of SARS-CoV-2 and cell-to-cell interactions reconstructed from electron microscopy images.

“3D electron microscopy and segmentation are one of the newest fields of science, so there was not a so-called conventional recipe to our project, meaning if we make a mistake, we have to start from scratch. However, after finishing many small sets of segmentations and familiarizing ourselves with new bioinformatics tools, our progress got quicker and quicker,” Kim said.

Kim was thankful for the “great” opportunity to present live to judges and enjoyed interacting with them and discussing future plans for the project. Kim and Fitzgerald placed second in the Computational Biology and Bioinformatics category.

“This award motivated me to dive deeper into this new field of science. Now, I want to incorporate my experience with computational biology and neuroscience to study the relationships of many different neural circuits, and I look forward to continuing my passion for STEM as an undergraduate!” Kim said.

The top two overall winners from the high school division of the Frederick competition move on to the international Regeneron fair. While no WHK interns claimed the coveted spots this year, they did well and seem enthused for the chance to participate.

“Because of the virtual format, I had expected many people to be discouraged from participating, … but everyone’s passion showed through in the science fair,” Willman said.

A full list of WHK interns who received awards is below.

Behavioral and Social Sciences

  • Honorable Mention – Arianna Robinson (mentor: Vladimir Popov, Ph.D.)

Biomedical and Health Sciences

  • First Place – Adam Teixeira (mentor: Stephen Lockett, Ph.D.)
  • Third Place – Elizabeth Willman (mentor: Anu Puri, Ph.D.)
  • Honorable Mention (tie) – Owen Doughty (mentor: John Fenimore) and Tatum Horton (mentor: Julio Valencia, M.D.)

Cellular and Molecular Biology

  • Honorable Mention – Samyak Jain (mentor: Anu Puri, Ph.D.)

Computational and Structural Biology

  • Second Place – Ella Fitzgerald and Taeeun Kim (team; mentor: Kedar Narayan, Ph.D.)

Regional Awards

  • U.S. Air Force Regional Award – Ella Fitzgerald and Taeeun Kim (team)
  • U.S. Public Health Service Distinguished Achievement Award, Second Place – Owen Doughty
  • U.S. Public Health Service Meritorious Award – Ella Fitzgerald and Taeeun Kim (team)
  • U.S. Public Health Service Meritorious Award – Adam Teixeira

Samuel Lopez is a technical editor in Scientific Publications, Graphics & Media (SPGM), where he writes for NCI at Frederick and Frederick National Laboratory’s news outlets; manages the day-to-day operations of the Poster newsletter; informally serves as an institutional historian; and edits scientific manuscripts, corporate documentation, and a slew of other written media. SPGM is the facilities’ creative services department and hub for editing, illustration, graphic design, formatting, and multimedia training and support.