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Education and Outreach

Best in show
Megan Sever

At this year’s 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. Langberg’s 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 Earth’s 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 university’s 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 Langberg’s 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, Langberg’s 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 Langberg’s 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.

Students might compete in as many as four science fairs before being chosen to participate in ISEF. More than 500 regional and state fairs from all over the United States and nearly 40 countries around the world are pit-stops on the way to the final, which was held this year in Portland, Ore., in May.

First stop: Compete in and win a high school or local science fair.
Second stop: Compete in and win a regional or state fair, sometimes both. Each affiliated regional or state fair can send up to two individual finalists to ISEF, as well as one team consisting of up to three members.
Final stop: Intel ISEF


Sever is a staff writer for Geotimes.

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