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Science competition keeps kids on track to be next wave of researchers

By Timothy Puko
Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014, 10:54 p.m.

At 14, Jonathan Russell is trying to do some serious science.

He's a big fan of cars, and the growing prominence of alternative motor fuels inspires him. So the Fox Chapel eighth-grader decided to experiment with how temperatures affect the viscosity of several types of organic oils.

The work earned him a top prize in biophysics — and a $1,000 check — from the Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Science's 18th annual regional meeting this weekend in Pittsburgh.

It's Russell's second year in the academy, and he says it's getting him hands-on experience in a lot of important things: research, public speaking and networking with a different set of peers. Getting into a room with some of the best students in the region is pushing him to do better work.

“At school, I know those people, so it's a little easier. This is more nerve-racking,” Russell said. “It makes you try a little harder. I just like the competition.”

Russell was one of nearly 800 students to come out over the weekend for the academy's first regional finals at Duquesne University, Uptown. After years of moving from high school to high school, the program is settling in at a venue that allows an all-digital competition, organizers said.

Students fill more than 50 classrooms, each giving 10-minute digital presentations with slideshows just like professional scientists use for talks at conferences and symposiums.

University faculty have been planning for two years to host the competition, in part because they see it as one of the best programs to get the region's brightest kids interested in science.

Local workforce data suggest Western Pennsylvania will need about 23,000 new employees in science fields by 2016, but local universities have been graduating fewer than half that many students from science programs. That inspired businesses to work with schools and nonprofits on growing several local educational programs to get younger students interested in science.

“If we don't engage them early, they decide they're going to be businessmen, they're going into law,” said Ralph A. Wheeler, chair of Duquesne's department of chemistry and biochemistry. “We lose them.”

Hands-on experience at a young age prevents that and inspires kids to work toward careers in technology, engineering and math, according to organizers and students.

At the academy, Jack Martha, 13, of Gibsonia tested whether classical or rap music would help plants grow faster.

Research gets much more sophisticated as students get older. Clayton Gentilcore, 18, of O'Hara used a cell line from Swiss mice in a Carnegie Mellon University lab to test how exposure to kale and hydrogen peroxide would affect cell growth.

Tim Zenchak of Baldwin said the program helped both of his children mature and improve their grades and their communication skills. His daughter, in eighth grade, researched how the brain affects decision-making, and his son, now a high school senior, wants to be a chemical engineer because of the several years he spent in the academy's competitions, Zenchak said.

“That experience helps them with all aspects of their life,” he said. “It taught them to be more self-reliant and have confidence in their abilities.”

Timothy Puko is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or



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