Two West Students Selected to Compete at International Science Fair


By Sonja Malek

Niles West seniors Sedra Khan and Vijay Shah will be heading all the way to Los Angeles, California to compete at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), the largest international competition for pre-college research students, from Sunday, May 14 to Friday, May 19 at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Shah and Khan were selected as ISEF finalists by several judges after presenting their year-long research projects at the Illinois Junior Academy of Science (IJAS) Region 6 science fair in March, where they also both won Gold and Best in Category awards. They have been continuing their work and improving their projects since then in preparation for this prestigious competition.

STEM Inquiry and Research instructor Julieann Villa, who is also heavily involved in the coordination and preparation for the science fairs West students participate in, believes Shah and Khan are deserving of the honor, especially considering all of the hard work that went into their projects. She also recognizes that standing out when only five projects are chosen out of more than 600 projects presented at the regional competition was no easy feat.

“I think their success came down to two things: the originality of the idea and the dedication to the project,” Villa said. “There was a lot of time and energy spent, and the level of knowledge they bring to their projects, both through taking AP classes and learning on their own, is what set them apart.”

As many SIRs students will testify to, taking on an independent research project that spans an entire year means the students are able to go into a depth in their area of study that develops near expertise. But Shah explained that in order to be successful, there needs to be something behind the project that comprises more than simply hard work and research.

“I feel that sometimes people ask how I ‘made it to ISEF,’ as if there’s a secret ingredient. I think that the only secret ingredient is a love for what you are doing,” Shah said. “I’m genuinely excited about the research I’m doing, and I was trying to combat a problem that I care a lot about. I believe it’s really important to do what you do because you love it and/or have a reason for doing it besides someone saying you need to.”

When it was announced that Shah’s project had been selected, his excitement caused him to quite literally fall over (twice) while going up to accept his honor.

“When the judges started reading my project title, everyone’s heads turned toward me and my jaw dropped what felt like all the way to my feet,” Shah said. “My knees were shaking like crazy and I was a mess, but it was an incredible moment.”

The project that Shah is so passionate about, and the one that has earned him a trip to Los Angeles for the Intel ISEF program next week, pertains to the field of chemistry. Shah explained that the significance of his project lies in the possibility of its application to environmental issues existing today.

Rare earth metals are useful in a wide range of electronic devices, but mining and purification are becoming more expensive and lead to wide-scale contamination, and [at the same time] the demand for these metals is growing much faster than the available supply,” Shah explained. “The synthesis of many alternative materials for organic electronics require heavy metal catalysts that can be highly toxic to the environment. To attempt to reduce this damage, my project focuses on a carbon-based alternative ‘conductive plastic’ called polypyrrole, which can be synthesized without these toxic catalysts. The electron structure in polypyrrole molecules theoretically allows the molecules to conduct electricity, but the molecules have to be ‘doped,’ or electrically charged, before they can actually conduct. I was looking at the influence of different doping molecules on the conductivity of polypyrrole samples.”

In reflecting on the aspects of his project that distinguish it from so many others, Shah explained that aside from his enthusiasm and knowledge, being able to effectively communicate the problem as well as the steps toward a conclusion is crucial to science fair success.

“The presentation itself is really important. It’s difficult to get someone who knows nothing about your project to understand complex ideas (instead of just nodding their head and saying you ‘scienced’ because it sounds fancy),” Shah said. “But it’s even harder to explain those concepts simply without losing the actual science.”

Khan, although she was also selected for ISEF last year, said she was still shocked that she had made it yet again, especially because the project she delved into this year was so different from her previous research.

“I decided on changing my project [from last year’s], even though many people advised me not to,” Khan said. “I wanted to try something new and different. Since I changed my project completely from last year I had no expectations of being selected this year, and when I did find out, I could not believe it.”

Khan explained that her eye-opening experience at last year’s Intel ISEF program helped spark the change that came with thinking beyond her old project to develop her new one.

Last year I conducted research on an alternative treatment to Alzheimer’s, using a natural compound found in everyday foods like green tea, green vegetables, soybeans, grapefruit, etc.,” Khan said. “When I went to ISEF, I realized how flawed my project was: not all people have access to those foods. Not all people have access to basic nutrients. These realizations I made led to the project I am doing this year.”

Khan shifted her focus to possible solutions for the problem of widespread nutrient deficiency, which is closer to the root of many health issues. Her project this year entails a much more fundamental issue, and one with worldwide significance.

1.5 million children die every year due to micronutrient deficiencies, and the purpose of this research is create a simple, cost-effective, and long-lasting method to fortify rice with micronutrients,” Khan said. “Malnutrition can be eliminated if key micronutrients are provided to children and adults alike; in this experiment rice, a staple crop is being fortified with iron and folic acid to help end this global epidemic. After being involved with our school’s UNICEF club, I wanted to combine my passion for research [with something bigger].”

Khan’s project is especially vital because of the adverse effects global warming has been inflicting on the world’s food supply.

“As climate change has been increasing, CO2 levels have been rising, robbing staple crops of mineral and protein content,” she said. “The decline of micronutrients is causing deficiencies around the globe, even in the US, to grow at rapid rates.”

Because of the size of the stage that her research explores in its effort to combat a worldwide epidemic, the significance of her project is impossible to deny. Khan attributes a lot of her success to the scope and importance of the problem she has chosen to tackle.

“There are so many amazing projects at our school, Niles North, and other schools in our region,” Khan said. “I do have an atypical project that sometimes makes people go, ‘Wait… what are you doing?’ I also believe that emphasizing the need for this research — answering the “Why should I care?” question — really makes people listen.”

Next week’s Intel ISEF program is much more than just another science fair competition. It brings more than 1,700 students from over 75 countries together to not only present their projects, but to participate in other activities and presentations that will broaden their scope of science and help to develop their research and communication skills.

“The students will be presenting their own projects during the first three days or so of the trip,” explained SIRs instructor Rachael Swiercz. “Afterwards, they’ll be able to attend seminars and participate in other activities.”

From her experience last year, Khan is again excited for many of the unique aspects of ISEF aside from being an international science fair.

Not only are there Nobel Laureates and other science geniuses [at ISEF], but there are also kids from around the world that come to this event and talking and learning about them and their interests is something I look forward to,” she said.

After their success at the regional competition, these two students, along with many other SIRs students, went on to compete at the state competition last Saturday, May 6. They again brought home Gold and Best in Category awards — Shah in the Chemistry category and Khan in the Consumer Science category. Since March, though, Khan and Shah have also been refining their projects and improving them in preparation for their presentations at ISEF, where they’ll be up against dedicated science students from around the world.

“After March, they worked hard on collecting more data for their projects until April,” Swiercz said. “State went really well, and since then, [Khan and Shah] have been working closely, improving and preparing their posters, and practicing their presentations in front of the class and [other audiences] to help prepare them for ISEF.”

Although hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money will be on the line at this competition, Shah and Khan both say that the experience is much more important to them.

“I’m most looking forward to meeting and learning from ISEF finalists from all over the world,” Shah said. “I’ve never met any other students from other countries who are also doing scientific research, and I can’t wait to see what other people are researching and to learn about what it is like to do research in other parts of the world. I don’t expect to bring home any prizes, but I definitely have my fingers crossed.”

Khan was in close agreement.

“I can’t wait to meet other people with the same passion for science,” she said. “There are some incredible projects there, and meeting the brains behind them is incredible. I expect to learn a ton about science, research, and communication, as well as how to improve my research and skills. And I also expect to have a great time in LA with my friends.”

Be sure to congratulate both Khan and Shah on their success, as well as on their many contributions to the prestige of Niles West’s science department over the course of their years here at West. Wish them luck as they continue their valuable work at this fair as well as in the bright futures ahead of them.