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Singing, Dancing, Careful Note-Taking: Students Express Life Science Ideas at Expo

Xconomy Seattle — 

The red blood cells traveled down the vein in their endless journey, moving oxygen and nourishment throughout the body. But some blood cells, thinner, curved, and more rigid were having trouble. They stuck to the blood vessel walls slowing this whole intricate process to a crawl.

Actually these weren’t real red blood cells, or veins. They were part of a model put together by Audrey Zehren, a student at Seattle’s Ballard High School. My eye was drawn to her project as I wandered through the Student Bio Expo organized by the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research, yesterday morning along with hundreds of other attendees.

This event was loaded with creative juice, showing around 350 different exhibits from high school students, who displayed molecular models, art projects, lab research reports, journalistic writing, even rap and dance numbers. Every room in the Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue, WA, hummed with excited energy Zehren’s display caught my eye with the motion its small pieces of rubber representing healthy red blood cells, alongside their sickly cousins made of bits of brass. They both traveled in water through silicone tubes, but strategically placed magnets along an attached cork board caused the brass to clog up the tubes. It’s a singularly illustrative representation of sickle-cell anemia (see photo below).

Sickle Cell Model
Now in its ninth year, the Student Bio Expo draws students in biology and biotechnology classes from many area high schools. The students get matched up with mentors with serious scientific credentials from around the Seattle biotech community, at places like Amgen, and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. The program has continued to gain popularity among students each year. “We’re pretty much at capacity now,” says Jeanne Chowning, the director of education for NWABR and one of the main organizers of the event.

To my eye, three things made this science fair stand out. The students come from many different schools instead of just one, they have a wide range of ways to express scientific ideas, and they get mentoring from experts in relevant disciplines. The students work on their project during the whole school year. So the mentoring relationship, rather than being just a one-day deal, becomes a year-long experience. Sometimes it even leads to more, with mentors often helping students find solid university programs to further their studies, or even internships suited to their scientific interest after the expo is over.

After being an expo judge for some years, JoAnn Schuh, a veterinary pathology consultant, chose to mentor a student this year. “It’s been a nice change,” she says. She mentored Kaitlin Cleveland, a student at Attic Learning Community in Woodinville, WA. Cleveland, a third-time exhibitor at the expo, chose to artistically render pulmonary hemorrhages in horses using painted and fused glass. This artful exhibit drew a lot of attention, even in the crowded hall.

The research exhibits sought to stimulate the mind just as much as the art stimulated the eye. Moriah Shupp, a student at WF West High School in Chehalis, WA, showed some careful and rigorous research on the effect of Splenda on fruit flies, which came out of her own decision to cut sugar from her diet. The research reports, thorough and methodical, represent the budding of new scientists whose work will be part of the future of biotechnology and related fields.

The expo’s organizers recognize that not every student at the expo will become a scientist, but believe that they can also succeed by helping students understand science for their everyday lives, Chowning says.

One aspiring journalist, Anita Dukart, from Juanita High School in Kirkland, WA, wrote a story on how people feel about the human papillomavirus vaccine, marketed by Merck as Gardasil, as a way to prevent girls from getting cervical cancer later in life. “It opened me up more to science,” Dukart says. Another student interested in art, Zehren—who sketched many designs of her sickle cell anemia model before building—said the project inspired her to think more about science and she now is considering becoming a science artist, perhaps creating illustrations for science textbooks.

All during the expo, the judges, from a variety of biological and medical institutions, went to each exhibit, talked to the creator and began to consult with each other. The afternoon added some new excitement with performances of biologically related rap, tap dance, and song. The organizers announced the winner in each category, including the people’s choice, voted on by attendees. (Zehren won third place in molecular modeling, and Shupp won honorable mention in lab research.) Each winner received a hundred dollar prize, and the school that wins the Cup of Excellence receives a large trophy to put in their awards cabinet—alongside trophies from the school sports teams.

“We’re trying to excite a broad range of students in life sciences,” Chowning says. To judge from the applause, they succeeded.

By the way, Splenda turns out to be fine for fruit flies in moderate doses, Shupp says. And she has the research to back it up.

First Place Awards:

Art: Erin Stickley, Eastside Catholic HS
Career and Industry: Amanda Bryant, Evergreen HS
Drama and Dance: Jesse Bengtsson, Nicholas Conway, Jay Howard, Ballard HS
Lab Research: Matten Bremgartner, W.F. West HS
Molecular Modeling: Danee Hidano, International School Bellevue
Multimedia: Nicole Frederick, Ballard HS
Music: Laurisa Coffee, Shorecrest HS
Teaching: Kristin Dorr, Eastlake HS
Website: Thao Ho, West Seattle HS
Creative Writing: Evan Fowler, Eastside Catholic HS
Journalism Writing: Charlotte Graham, Mercer Island HS
People’s Choice: Rosie Spracklin, Ballard HS
Cup of Excellence School: West Seattle HS

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