Thursday, June 04, 2015

The Future of Science is Bright

Too often predictions of the future are dystopian, full of daunting challenges due to climate change, exponential population growth, environmental disasters, and economic woes.  Finding solutions to these problems seems so hard, but this last month I was able to peek into a much more hopeful future at the Intel Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF), where Monsanto sponsors a special award for plant science. I was a judge for the award and helped one day at a booth in the expo hall to talk to the thousands of parents, students and teachers about Monsanto. One day was open to the public and there were a lot of questions about genetic engineering, Monsanto, and plant breeding.

 Intel sponsors this science fair together with the Society for Science and the Public (SSP) for some of the brightest students from around the world.  This is the world’s largest international high school science competition with approximately 1,700 high school students from over 75 countries.  Each participant has already won their regional science fair or national fair and came to Pittsburgh to compete for around $4 million dollars in prizes.  We met students from the USA, Saudi Arabia, Korea, Japan, Russia, Egypt, Indonesia, South Africa, Thailand, Ireland, and many other countries.

As I wandered the two huge halls I was so impressed with the breadth and depth of the research presented by students that ranged from 10-17 years old.  Research topics covered everything from demonstration of how to build a trinary computer using Legos®, a method for improved silk production, 3-D printing custom implants and prosthetics, a homebuilt PCR machine with improved algorithms for controlling temperature, improved airplane wing design, environmental studies on changes in ocean pH and flora due to global warming, the mechanism for folding of cotyledons in radishes, and so many others. I kept thinking that many of these students had done Ph.D level science as high school students. 

After some significant deliberation, we chose the 2015 ISEF Monsanto Special Award winners:

1st place --- Anna Marie McEvoy --- Drogheda, Ireland.  Aetiology of ‘bleeding canker’ disease of horse chestnut trees. Anna McEvoy noticed a tree growing by her school with an oozing disease lesion.  She wondered what it was and how common it was.  She catalogued and sampled thousands of trees throughout Ireland, cultured the diseased regions to find the candidate pathogen, sequenced its genome, compared the genomic sequence to other available sequences to potential origin of the disease, and developed PCR markers that could be used to quickly identify the disease in the future. 

2nd place --- Saumya Ramadugu Keremane --- Riverside, CA. A rapid field detection of Liberibacter bacteria using lateral flow technology. (She was our 2014 3rd place winner.) She worked to develop methods to detect citrus greening bacteria prior to the development of symptoms.  She made labeled primers and a single amplification PCR using wax and a coffee cup.  The results are read similar to a commercial pregnancy test. If farmers tested trees prior to the development of symptoms they could potentially remove and replant those trees before it spreads to the rest of the farm. 

3rd place --- Vasu Chavanasupitchaya, Natchamukda Paibooi, Wanicha Khotwongsa --- Khonkaen, Thailand. The effect of crude extract of Imperata cylindrica and the survival and growth rate of Nilaparvata lugens Stal and its impact on predatory insects of Nilaparvata lugens Stal eggs. This team from rural Thailand noticed that rice pests avoided a weedy grass growing in their fields.  They made extracts from the plant and tested efficacy of the extract as a pesticide on replicated field trials on their own farms and in larger field level tests in four locations.

We also gave out 12 honorable mentions.  We really wished we could have given awards to them all.  There were that many great presentations.  The Society for Science has descriptions of the grand award winners:

It is a hopeful future with such hardworking and bright young scientists.  I came home buoyed up with optimism.  

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Pittsburgh for the Intel Science Fair Finals

When I think of Pittsburgh, I think of one thing: steel.  It is a city that was built as a mill town at the convergence of two rivers.  Frankly, I did not have a very good impression of Pittsburgh before I went, but was happy to be proven wrong.  I stayed right downtown near a hockey rink and the conference center. 

The downtown is flanked by rivers and defined by steel bridges.  This bridge was covered in locks inscribed with names of couples.  I think this is something that people do in France, but apparently in Pittsburg as well.  
I rode a tram up the hill and took some great pictures of the valley.  It was a relatively easy city to get around because there were buses or trains from 5 AM to midnight. 
I walked the length of the downtown and ate at some great restaurants.  

Carpets in Abu Dhabi

While I was in Abu Dhabi, our friends took us to this great Suk in Sharjah.  The outside was covered in great blue tile and sat next to a Mosque that was full of taxi drivers for their evening prayers. Parking was a little crazy, but we arrived early in the evening before the heavy shopping hours. We came directly from the beach to choose Persian carpets for their apartment.  

Mall food in Abu Dhabi is different than I expected, obviously no Orange Julius. Surprisingly, the busiest kiosk sold sweet corn. They served a large kernelled sweet corn that was a little bit starchy, but nice flavor with butter and a choice of spices. They also sold fresh potato chips fried on a stick.  That would make a killing at the Iowa State Fair.  

So many of the buildings in the Emirates were so new that this older building really was striking. The bottom floor was almost entirely gold and jewelry stores, and lots of gold.  Everything from a gold necklace that looked more like a breastplate it was so wide and thick to thin wire hoop earrings. Upstairs were a number of carpet shops that had piles of carpets to the ceiling in the back of each shop, smaller rugs hanging on the walls, and rugs on the floors.  

The shop owners were happy to sort through the piles of carpets to show the different color combinations.  Our friends had been their before and the shopkeeper remembered which carpets in the pile she had been interested in before and laid out the options on the floor. He would tell for each carpet where it was from and whether it was an unusual pattern or color.  
The most expensive carpets were woven from silk instead of wool and were extremely thick and plush. I was interested in this thin carpet that I thought I could fit in my luggage to bring home.  The large thick carpets weighed easily 50 lbs and this one was still pretty large, but very light.  Since our friend was buying a few carpets the shopkeep talked me into buying this one.  It is not as fancy or intricate, but had a series of geometric patterns and I loved the red and blues.  So I bought it.  I put the carpet upstairs on the landing.