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Penn Hills eighth-grader among nation's top science students

Patrick Varine
| Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013, 3:42 p.m.
Emma Burnett is not just among the nation's top science students; she also has a minor planet named after her.
Patrick Varine | Penn Hills Progress
Emma Burnett is not just among the nation's top science students; she also has a minor planet named after her.

Emma Burnett of Penn Hills has not only met the President of the United States, but also has a minor planet in our solar system named after her.

Not bad for 12 years old.

Burnett is an eighth-grader at The Ellis School in Pittsburgh's Shadyside neighborhood, and her love of all things rock-related ultimately led her to the Oval Office.

“My family goes on vacation to North Carolina every summer, and two summers ago, we took a tour of the Bon Ami mine where they placed ultraviolet lights all over the mine, and when they were turned on, the shortwave UV lights caused rocks to fluoresce in bright greens, oranges and pinks,” Burnett said.

She noticed, though, that rocks in a certain part of the mine were fluorescing blue.

Her curiosity propelled her from local science fairs to a spot among the nation's top science students.

While Burnett's mother was earning her Ph.D in solid-state chemistry, Burnett became interested in the ultra-high-powered electron-scanning microscope.

After training to properly use the $500,000 piece of equipment, Burnett was allowed to run samples from the rocks and found out that they contained the elements molybdenum and tungsten, impurities that caused them to exhibit a different fluorescent color.

The research formed the basis of a project that earned Burnett second place in the Pittsburgh Regional Science and Engineering Fair, and in turn a recommendation to apply for the Broadcom Masters Competition, presented annually by the Society for Science and the Public.

After writing more than a dozen essays describing her project, the types of technology it utilized, how the scientific method fit into her project and other topics, she was invited along with 329 of the country's brightest science students to Washington, D.C., for the Broadcom competition, held in late September and early October.

Burnett presented her project and also participated in group competitions with fellow students. She earned a $500 cash prize, had a chance to meet astronaut Jeanette Epps, and also was awarded the opportunity to put her name on a minor planet — the celestial body “Emmaburnett” is careening through space somewhere in a counterclockwise orbit between Mars and Jupiter.

Then President Barack Obama just happened to stroll by.

Obama talked with Burnett and other members of the Broadcom competition before taking them on an impromptu tour of the Oval Office.

And to think the whole process began with Burnett stealing rocks from her neighbor's gravel driveway.

“I've always been interested in minerals and how they form,” Burnett said. “I like exploring unknown territory and engineering new ways to solve problems.”

Burnett's favorite aspect of the Broadcom competition — aside from meeting the president — was meeting other like-minded young people.

“At school, everyone's like, ‘Oh, science project…'” she said. “But I really enjoy these kinds of things, and it was great to meet people who felt the same way.”

Burnett is also using her newfound accolades to help others: she is using part of the $500 to prize to purchase diapers for local teenage mothers, and the rest will go toward her current project, creating a way to use thermoelectric devices to create electricity for use in Third World countries.

But on to the burning question: What did she and President Obama talk about?

“He apologized about the Steelers,” Burnett said. “I didn't even know the Steelers were on a losing streak, but being told by the President of the United States isn't a bad way to find out.”

Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or

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