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Students go for science's 'Olympic gold' in global competition

Natasha Lindstrom
| Sunday, May 10, 2015, 10:50 p.m.
Isabelle Stamper, 16, of the U.S. Virgin Islands points out her name as she gets her photo taken at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown on Sunday, May 10, 2015.  The science fair is called 'the Olympics of science fairs' and draws more than 1,700 entrants from 84 countries and territories with over 1,500 projects submitted.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Isabelle Stamper, 16, of the U.S. Virgin Islands points out her name as she gets her photo taken at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown on Sunday, May 10, 2015. The science fair is called 'the Olympics of science fairs' and draws more than 1,700 entrants from 84 countries and territories with over 1,500 projects submitted.
Anna Song Wan, 15, a sophomore at Taylor Allderdice High School, sits near her project, Targeting Hippo-Related Cell Polarity in Breast Cancer, at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown on Sunday, May 10, 2015.  The science fair is called 'the Olympics of science fairs' and draws more than 1,700 entrants from 84 countries and territories with over 1,500 projects submitted.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Anna Song Wan, 15, a sophomore at Taylor Allderdice High School, sits near her project, Targeting Hippo-Related Cell Polarity in Breast Cancer, at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown on Sunday, May 10, 2015. The science fair is called 'the Olympics of science fairs' and draws more than 1,700 entrants from 84 countries and territories with over 1,500 projects submitted.

Mihir Garimella, 15, designed a small flying robot that can swoop into a burning building to pinpoint the source of a fire and find people trapped inside.

Anna Song Wan, 15, produced genetic research to help identify therapy strategies for attacking triple-negative breast cancer, a culprit in 15 percent to 20 percent of breast cancer cases.

And the team of Konrad Neal Urban, 16, and Suvir Prakash Mirchandani, 16, developed a simplified text-to-image conversion tool for people with aphasia, a language disorder caused by injuries to the brain.

The four students from Fox Chapel Area and Taylor Allderdice high schools are representing Western Pennsylvania in an international competition this week in Downtown's David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

About 1,300 projects are vying for honors and $4 million in prizes at the 2015 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, an annual event put on by the Society for Science & the Public, based in Washington.

“We always look at it as the Olympics of science fairs,” said Ben Schafer, 71, a 43-year high school science teacher from Bismarck, N.D., whose daughter, Dr. Rhonda Schafer-McLean, took first place in 1989, and whose granddaughter, Riley McLean, 16, is a 2015 finalist. “If you win first in your category, you win comparable to an Olympic gold.”

“People who haven't been through it, they just can't imagine the excitement and anticipation.”

This year's event has drawn to Pittsburgh roughly 1,700 high school entrants from 84 countries and territories, from Brazil and Puerto Rico to Italy and Ukraine.

“It's a competition, but it's also a time for these students to be together with other like-minded students from around the world,” said Judy Hallinen, chair of the local organizing committee.

Contestants scurried around Sunday setting up their booths, rehearsing presentations and getting to know the competition.

“It's a new experience for us, and we all feel proud of being here,” said Palestinian student Laila Daher, 16, who has been working on her project on GPS-assisted speed control since November.

Projects span 20 categories, from animal sciences to robotics and intelligent machines.

Among the eclectic mix of topics on display: autonomous navigation applied to lawn mowing; a cost-effective device for preventing hot car deaths; and innovative methods to curb diseases from spreading across airplane cabins.

Several thousand guests and spectators are expected to pack into the exhibit halls and conference rooms through the closing awards ceremony Friday. The week will be filled with breakout sessions, student presentations and special events, including a panel discussion Tuesday afternoon featuring four Nobel Prize winners, moderated by NPR science correspondent Joe Palca.

Mirchandani of Fox Chapel Area High School is competing for the second time. He considers the event “a grand portal to many opportunities.”

“This project involves exciting technological innovations, aesthetics and even has a service element in that it answers a real-world need,” he said. “For me, personally, the ‘eureka' moments that came after hundreds of hours of coding really took me deep into the science involved.”

The exhibits on the second floor of the convention center will be open for public viewing from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday. For more information, visit student.societyforscience.org/.

Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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