'Cool' kids are impressive at science fair

rdymond@bradenton.comFebruary 1, 2013 

MANATEE -- Not one boy wore a plastic pocket protector.

Not one girl wore a T-shirt with an image of the Orion Nebula taken by the Hubble Telescope.

In fact, the 250 Manatee County students honored at the 2013 Lockheed Martin Manatee Regional Science & Engineering Fair Thursday at Braden River High School, in their hip dress and demeanor, seemed to destroy the stereotype that science kids are geeky and absentminded.

"Science has so much to offer," said Katherine Zimmerman, 17, a Braden River High School junior who captured one of the two "Best in Show" prizes at the fair. "You will probably discover that science kids are just kids that just love to work hard to find answers."

The students were hoping to earn a trip to the 58th state science fair in Lakeland March 26-28.

When it was over, 17 made it, including five from Manatee High School.

Two, including Zimmerman of Braden River High and Johnna Glover, 17, of Manatee High, got "Best in Show," made the International Science & Engineering Fair, as well as state, and also got a replica of the Space Shuttle.

"I was very shocked," said Glover, who hopes to be a doctor and do medical research.

Glover impressed the judges with her work designed to create genetically-modified plants that resist the tobacco mosaic virus. Her project was called "Primer Design Around Tobacco Mosaic Virus Resistance Gene in the Common Bean."

She did her research at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Zimmerman's remarkable project is designed to help families in Third World countries who don't have clean water to drink. Her solar-powered evaporator and condenser can produce roughly 10 liters of water per hour to help sustain a family of four.

"The most amazing thing about the night for me is to see these students come back, year after year, and their siblings follow them," said Judy Griffin, Regional Science and Engineering Fair Director.

Brittany Wenger, a senior at Out-of-Door Academy in Sarasota and winner of the 2012 Google Science Fair Grand Prize, was the special speaker.

In one of the most emotional moments of the night, Emily Waikem, 16, of Manatee High School won first place in Microbiology and earned her first trip to statewide competition.

"I couldn't believe it when they called my name," Waikem said.

Waikem's project may have local impact. She collected water samples from Palma Sola Bay when horses were in the water.

Her project, "Drainage of e-coli and other coliforms in Palma Sola Bay" concluded that while e-coli rates do soar near the shoreline when the horses are swimming in the bay, the e-coli flushes out soon after the horses are gone.

"One of my friends said, 'I won't swim at Palma Sola because the water is dirty because of the horses,'" Waikem said. "I wanted to see if she was right. Based on my conclusions, I wouldn't swim in Palma Sola when the horses are there, especially close to shore, but I would swim there when they are not in the water."

Waikem plans to share her results with Manatee County government.

Manatee High's Kendall Machey is returning to state. Her project, "Phyto Remediation Using Water Hyacinths" showed that although the water hyacinth is a local menace species, it can do a remarkable job filtering toxins out of our local waters.

Jordan Conelias, who is going to state from Nolan Middle, captured the imagination of the entire audience Thursday with his project "The Invincible Tic Tac Toe Game" in which he created a computer Tic Tac Toe that can't be beat.

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