Local students head to L.A. for international science fair

Thursday, April 3, 2014
Austin Van de Ven poses with his science fair project, “Effectiveness of Antibiotics,” on March 27 at Notre Dame Regional High School. (Fred Lynch)

Paper vs. plastic and what antibiotics work best against certain types of bacteria are two of the projects that won top honors at this year's Southeast Missouri Regional Science Fair in March.

Armed with their honors from the regional fair, Makayla Job, a Scott City Middle School student, and Austin Van de Ven, a freshman at Notre Dame Regional High School in Cape Girardeau, are heading to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles -- all expenses paid -- from May 11 to 16.

John Rodgers, a sophomore at Dexter (Mo.) High School, is another student from the region heading west.

Paper or plastic?

Makayla Job poses with her science fair project, “Paper or Plastic,” at Scott City Middle School on March 27 in Scott City. (Fred Lynch)

This was the first time Job, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Scott City Middle School, had participated in the regional science fair. She will be an observer at the international science fair and help out.

In addition to figuring out whether paper or plastic is stronger, Job also wanted to know if the reason shoppers are offered plastic more often is because it's stronger, or because it's cheaper. She found plastic is less expensive.

She conducted trials on paper bags vs. plastic and found paper was stronger, but not that much more.

On average, Job said, plastic bags could hold 35 to 38 pounds, and paper, 39 to 43 pounds.

"Throughout the experiment, I kind of figured that paper would be a little stronger, but I didn't realize it would be so little difference. ... It seemed almost weird to me that it would only be four pounds different," she said.

Job said she and her family usually shop at places that don't offer an option of paper or plastic.

Since she completed her project, which took up science class time and time at home, every time she goes to the grocery store, she now jokes with her parents that they should ask for paper because it's stronger, "like we know. We're on to them."

For her science prowess, Job was selected as a BROADCOM Masters nominee, which places her in the top 10 percent of each science fair and gives her a chance to win $1,000 and a trip to Washington, D.C.; first place for physics-best experiment; and top eighth-grade student overall in physical science in the junior division, Job and her teacher Sara Bradshaw said.

"I was really, really surprised," Job said of her win. "I hadn't even expected to get first place for physics, and apparently I got first place for it all."

Expenses for her and Bradshaw are taken care of for the L.A. trip. Her mother, Marsha, and younger sister, Kelsie, are going along. She said her mom and dad, Gary, are always bragging about her, which seems to embarrass her a little.

Bradshaw, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade science, has no shortage of praise for Job either. She joked that she's been calling Job "val," as a nickname, for valedictorian, because "she is over the top with everything."

"Everything she does is just perfect," Bradshaw said.

Chasing germs

Van de Ven, 15, tested the effectiveness of eight antibiotics on two different types of bacteria -- Bacillus cereus and E. coli. Drugs tested were chloramphenicol, erythromycin, kanamycin, neomycin, novobiocin, penicillin G, streptomycin and tetracycline.

On the gram positive bacteria, Bacillus cereus, erythromycin was the most effective. According to Van de Ven, gram positive bacteria loses its cell wall when it reproduces, which leaves it open to antibiotics or other microorganisms.

For gram negative bacteria, kondomycin was the best. But overall, chloramphenicol was superior. Gram negative bacteria only loses a portion of its cell wall at a time, so when it's reproducing most of it is still protected, which makes it more resistant to antibiotics but also it reproduces at a slower rate, he said.

Used in Third-World countries, chloramphenicol is broad spectrum and inexpensive to make; the only problem is it's not legal for use in the United States, except for testing, Van de Ven said.

It has been shown to cause Gray Baby Syndrome and aplastic anemia. Gray Baby Syndrome, discovered in the 1950s, occurred when soap and an antibiotic were combined to wash newborns. It would seep through the baby's skin to their blood stream and cause aplastic anemia, which would cause lack of production of platelets and red and white blood cells.

Van de Ven, who has an immunodeficiency, has been interested in competing in science fairs since he was young. "I've done microbiology experiments in the past," he said. "I have an immune deficiency and I have to take antibiotics every day. It would just kind of be nice to know which antibiotics work the best."

In the past, he has figured out which unscented hand santizier and which disinfectant wipes work best. The answers are Target generic brand and Clorox, respectively.

"My hypothesis was that chloramphenicol would do the best," Van de Ven said, but he was unsure which ones would do best in their individual categories. He tested the drugs over 10 days, because, when prescribed, that's usually the duration people take them for.

As for going to the international fair, Van de Ven said he's excited and nervous.

"Those are the two biggest feelings right now. ... I'm kind of worried because other people have had really good experiments before and I'm a little curious how mine will stack up against theirs," he said.

A table full of awards to his credit, Van de Ven has loved science his whole life.

"I would perform experiments -- like my bathroom became a laboratory when I was a little child," Van de Ven said. "I always wanted to compete in the science fair. I first heard in second grade that the brother of one of my friends had competed in the science fair and done well, so then I realized there [was] a local science fair I could compete" in, it got him even more interested.

Deacon Rob Huff, who teaches physics at Notre Dame and has Van de Ven as a student, said it's fairly unusual for a freshman to make it to the international fair. "It's an honor for Austin. I know he'll represent the school and this area very well," Huff said. "It's a great opportunity for him to visit with students with similar ... interests. I think he'll gain a lot from that experience."

Asked if he plans to try for the international fair next year, Van de Ven said, "Absolutely."

"I plan on doing this throughout high school," he said. He added he loves the events, so he's going to compete as long as he can.

Austin is the son of Jeannie and Scott Van de Ven.

They credit the teachers and the individual attention he's had throughout school, so far, with his success.

"I think for someone like Austin, that's made all the difference in the world," Jeannie Van de Ven said.



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