McCandless sixth-grader earns science accolades, a family tradition

| Wednesday, May 22, 2013, 6:36 p.m.

Lyta Nicoll is following in her family's footsteps.

As the daughter of a scientist and an engineer, Lyta was excited to become eligible to participate in the annual Pittsburgh Regional Science and Engineering Fair, held last month, in the youngest age category.

Lyta, a sixth-grader at Montessori Centre Academy in Shaler Township, spent several months researching and testing the electromagnetic field waves emitted from multiple cell phones at various distances and was rewarded for her efforts with several awards, including second place in the junior physical science category.

“After the first couple of awards (are announced), you see the audience start to hold their breath to see who got first, second and third,” said Lyta, 11, of McCandless. “I was nervous after third place was announced … I was certainly not expecting to get second place at all.”

Lyta also received sponsor awards from the Allegheny County Health Department and the American Industrial Hygiene Association, an honorable mention by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. and an affiliate award from the Ricoh Americas Corp.

By placing second, Lyta earned the opportunity to compete in the Broadcom MASTERS, an online national science fair for students in the sixth to eighth grades.

“I was very proud of her,” said Amy McIvor, Lyta's science teacher. “She worked very hard and diligently on her research and experiment. She takes a lot of pride in her work and (puts in) a lot of effort.”

While Lyta's family members are not frequent cellphone users, she noticed increased cellphone usage in the general public, which prompted her research and discovery of the harmful effects of electromagnetic field, or EMF, waves emitted by cell phones.

“I didn't even know EMFs existed until doing the research for this project so it was a real learning experience,” Lyta said.

She used an EMF meter to test 11 cellphones of friends, family members and teachers for her research. While Lyta found differences in the cellphones tested, she couldn't conclude from her data if one phone model was better or worse.

Lyta also received coaching from her older sister, Serena, a freshman at North Allegheny Intermediate High School, who has placed in each of the four years of competing in the regional science fair, and her parents who helped her prepare answers to the judges' questions.

“We've always enjoyed doing it as a family project,” said Gayle Nicoll, Lyta's mother and a chemist. “We shoot to make this an educational experience so they get something out of it. We practice so they do well, but the main goal is to learn and enjoy the experience.”

Now Lyta is looking at ways to expand her experiment for next year's science fair.

“I'm probably going to continue with this project,” said Lyta, giving examples of variations to the experiment. “There are a lot of expansion projects with it.”

Bethany Hofstetter is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6364 or

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