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Students voyage to edges of science

| Sunday, April 2, 2006, 12:00 p.m.

When ninth-grader Lavanya Sivakumar was looking for a science project, she talked to her physician mother and decided to write a computer program that uses fractal geometry to identify abnormalities in MRI scans.

"I thought it would be a really good way to help my mom and help people," the 13-year-old Franklin Regional High School student said Saturday. "My mom has enough work as it is."

Lavanya's project -- one of 673 entered in the 67th annual Pittsburgh Regional Science & Engineering Fair -- earned her a trip next month to attend the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the Olympics of science fairs, in Indianapolis.

The two-day science fair, which received entries from students in grades six through 12 from 12 western Pennsylvania counties, concluded yesterday with $300,000 in scholarship money awarded to participants.

Prizes were awarded to winners in eight categories: behavioral/social science; biology; chemistry; computer science/math; earth/space/environment; engineering/robotics; medicine/health/microbiology; and physics.

Fractal are used in computer modeling of irregular patterns and structures in nature. MRIs are used to spot medical problems using magnetic imaging

"I am absolutely thrilled," said Usha Sivakumar, Lavanya's mother, who admitted that her daughter's project was far beyond her comprehension: "I don't understand any of it other than the word MRI."

Chuck Vukotich, a member of the fair's judging committee, said projects are evaluated based on their creativity and originality, the rigorousness of the scientific method applied and the skillfulness of presentation.

The winners "really are reaching to the edge of scientific knowledge and creating new scientific knowledge," he said. "It's very sophisticated."

And acknowledging and rewarding scientific achievement by young people is especially important now, Vukotich said, as students from other countries increasingly come to dominate science programs.

"If we don't do that, this country is going to decline," he said, noting that 51 percent of engineering doctorates from American universities go to foreign students.

Abhiram Bhashyam, 17, of Bethel Park, was the other student selected to attend the international competition in Indianapolis, based on his project for improving the aerosol delivery of medication to the lungs.

"I like doing things that have real time, real life implementations," he said. "That's the neat thing about this project."

The Bethel Park High School senior plans to study biomedical engineering in college

"My family always encouraged science when I was a kid," he said. "I liked reading science books. It's just something I had a passion for."

Jessica Klabnik, 17, who lives on a farm in Sarver and operates her own small cattle business, didn't have to look past her own pasture to come up with her project idea: She studied the correlation between bulls' scrotal circumference and abnormalities in their sperm.

Not only did the project win her the top prize for high school biology projects and the prestigious Carnegie Science Center Award -- equivalent to the best in show prize -- it also earned her a lot of funny looks at the fair.

"I have got a lot of strange jokes and comments," the Freeport Senior High 11th grader said. "Many people do a double take. It's just fun to watch their faces."

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