At this years
Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), a geoscience project
won top honors, garnering international distinction and a $50,000 scholarship
for the 17-year-old researcher, Sarah Langberg. ISEF brings together the crème
de la crème of young scientists and their research projects for an annual
competition and exhibition. Langbergs project on ocean floor petrology
and geochemistry won not only in the earth and space sciences category, but
also took home one of three best in show Grand Awards at the competition,
held in May in Portland, Ore.
Sarah Langberg, a high-school junior from Florida, recently won top honors at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, for her project on ocean floor petrology and geochemistry. Courtesy of Sarah Langberg.
Langberg and her advisor, Michael Perfit, a marine geochemist at the University
of Florida, began the National Science Foundation-funded research project to
understand and document volcanism around the Juan de Fuca Ridge, a spreading
center where Earths crust is splitting apart and releasing lava on the
ocean floor. For years, scientists have believed that volcanic activity is confined
to the central axis of the spreading center, and models have indicated that
lava on the seafloor away from the ridge axis would have similar composition
to lava at the spreading center, but that the solid rock would be older. What
Langberg and Perfit found, however, is that the lava is different in composition.
A rising junior in high school in Florida when she began the research project in the summer of 2003, Langberg visited the University of Florida geosciences lab where Perfit works through a school program designed to introduce students to science at the university level. Most students go to the biology labs, Perfit says, and we get maybe two or three students a year who are really interested in what we do.
After meeting Perfit, Langberg persistently asked, Perfit recalls, if she could work in the lab. Earth science was something that I had never been exposed to before on a large scale, Langberg says. The unknown and abstractness that seemed to embody my notion of geology sparked my interest.
In June 2003, her wish was granted and she began an internship at the lab in the geology department as part of the universitys Student Science Training Program. I literally knew absolutely nothing about the material which I was to conduct research on, Langberg says. So she spent a lot of time reading and learning the material, eating up all the information you could give her, Perfit says.
Throughout the internship, Langberg spent hours in the lab doing grunt work, he says: preparing samples from the ocean floor for chemical analysis, looking at thin sections of the rocks, reviewing videos of the seafloor taken by the remotely operated vehicle Tiburon, developing petrologic models and interpreting data. It was not a simple task, Langberg says, but an intriguing adventure.
Once the summer internship was over and Langbergs junior year had begun, she continued her work with Perfit remotely, with occasional visits to the lab. She decided to enter her research project, which Perfit says could easily have been an undergraduate honors thesis, in her high school science fair (which, she says, has very little participation). Langberg won top honors there and advanced to the regional fair and won again. Her project moved on to the Florida State Science Fair, after which the final stop was the ISEF in Portland.
More than 1,400 high school students competed in ISEF this year, coming from every state and 40 different countries. The projects are divided into 14 categories, everything from biochemistry and botany to physics and the earth and space sciences category in which Langberg competed. The students prepare displays, research papers and abstracts for the exhibition. Judges people with doctoral degrees in their fields or at least six years of experience then interview the students about their projects. This year, Langbergs project won out over 76 other projects in her category, eventually winning the grand award.
The remarkable thing about the ISEF is that it brings together so many students from around the world who have done extraordinary science at a young age, says Barbara Tewksbury, a geologist at Hamilton College in New York whose interest in science fairs is more than academic: Her daughter also competed in ISEF and is now pursuing a degree in geology at Smith College. These are all remarkable projects and students, and Langbergs win is truly an extraordinary accomplishment, says Tewksbury, who is also president of the American Geological Institute (which publishes this magazine).
Indeed, Perfit is very excited for Langberg. She accomplished this on her own, he says, with more than a little persistence and an insatiable appetite for knowledge. She was never afraid to ask questions or to dig in and do the work, he says.
Langberg says that while the lucrative nature of her award is exciting, learning the fundamentals of research science, such as how to prepare a research paper, will always be the most valuable lesson that she has taken away from the overall experience. The award, she says, is just icing on the cake. That icing, however, will be partially funding her college education.
As to where she will go to college next year, Langberg is not sure. She knows she wants a small, liberal arts school where she can pursue geology and other sciences, as well as any other interests she develops. In the meantime, Langberg is back in the lab this summer doing more research and continuing to learn. And this fall, she begins her senior year and the quest to find her perfect college.
The path to the fair
Caption: Uwe Treske from Germany, Sarah Langberg from Florida and Yuanchen Zhu from China were named Grand Award winners at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Portland, Ore., in May.
Each year, several million students begin the path to the annual Intel
International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) by producing science
research projects and competing at local levels, says Clint Tanner of
Science Service, which runs the ISEF process. Over several months, that
field is whittled down to 1,400 students who compete at ISEF for more
than $3 million in awards and scholarships.