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Future PIs Wow NIEHS Judges

By Jerry Phelps
March 2010

Jerry Phelps and a participant
Phelps, left, talks with a participant during the Annual Science Fair at St. Timothy's. While the school permitted photographs, it asked that students not be identified by name. (Photo courtesy of Jerry Phelps)

Mike Humble and two young scientists
Humble, shown above working his way through the aisle of posters, talked about experiments with two young scientists. (Photo courtesy of Jerry Phelps)

First-prize poster
This first-prize poster display may launch the career of a young scientific investigator. (Photo courtesy of
Jerry Phelps)

Perry Suk and the future  PI
Proud science teacher Perry Suk, left, presented the future PI with a blue ribbon for her project, "Keepin' It Fresh." (Photo courtesy of Perry Suk)

NIEHS Program Administrator Mike Humble and I participated in the Annual Science Fair at St. Timothy's School( Exit NIEHS in Raleigh on Jan. 28. As part of the Institute's support for science education, we volunteered to serve as judges for the poster competition at the invitation of Perry Suk - a science teacher at St. Timothy's and wife of Bill Suk, director of the NIEHS Center for Risk and Integrated Sciences.

Perry asked us to take a few hours to have fun and offer positive feedback to the children as we evaluated presentations on their experiments. The Fair is open to the entire school of first through eighth graders, but it's mandatory for students in the fourth and seventh grades. Mike, a former science teacher himself and a veteran of NIEHS outreach efforts in science education (see story(, has been a judge for three years running, but this was my first time.

The future may be brighter than it sometimes seems

The popular and scientific press paints a pretty bleak picture these days of the scientific and math literacy of U.S. middle and high school students. Many articles say we are falling behind in terms of training the future workforce for jobs in technology and science.

But the kids Mike and I interacted with at St. Timothy's are certainly bucking that trend, and they, and their teachers, should be congratulated. Collectively, their grasp of the scientific method at such a young age is quite impressive and offers naysayers a refreshing ray of hope about the future of scientific research.

Getting a good start in science, early on

We were highly impressed by the creativity and breadth of the projects - everything from testing the optimal shape for airplane wings and determining the best commercially available germ-killing mouth wash to experiments targeted to establish whether cats are predominantly left- or right-"handed" (the data suggest a slight but probably not statistically significant preference for the left paw).

The title of the winning poster by a fourth grader at the school (see text box) was "Keepin' it Fresh." The future principal investigator tested a variety of agents and preparations to determine the best method for inhibiting the oxidation reaction that browns sliced bananas, apples, and avocados. She tested agents individually and in a variety of combinations, and she scored for browning during a 24-hour period.

According to the visual evidence and data, the combination of vacuum sealing, lemon juice, and refrigeration inhibited the oxidation reaction better than the other treatments. The young scientist's future plans include a placebo-controlled, double-blinded taste test.

(Jerry Phelps is a program analyst in the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training.)

Phelp's First Impressions of an All-Around Winner

When Phelps first approached the earnest young woman presenting her poster at the annual scientific meeting, he said he was immediately impressed by her firm handshake, her poise, and the complexity of her poster. As she launched into a lively description of her hypothesis, methods, and findings, her excitement and commitment to her work were immediately evident. Moreover, she was already thinking about follow-up experiments to explore questions that arose from her current line of investigation, and her answers to the judge's questions were at once well composed and extemporaneous.

This may sounds like a description of talented students and junior investigators at many scientific meetings, but the eager "young scientist" in this case was only 9 years old.

Getting Ready for 2011 - An Open Call for Judges

During Phelps and Humble's visit, K-4 Science Lab Instructor Perry Suk extended an invitation to NIEHS scientists and grantees in the area to serve as judges next year. The judges serve two important functions - they encourage scientific curiosity in young minds, and they offer young people role models from the "real world" of science. They also get a chance to see poster competitions from the other side and discover first-hand the qualities that can help them perform better as presenters.

People who want to spend an enjoyable few hours with some interesting people and do their part to turn kids on to science should contact Perry Suk for further details:

Perry Suk

Phone: (919) 787-3011
St. Timothy's School
4523 Six Forks Road
Raleigh, North Carolina 27609

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