Regional science fair can be springboard to scientific career

They say diamonds are a girl’s best friend. I once gave my wife a beautiful Brazilian beetle embedded in plastic. I think she might have preferred a diamond. She apparently didn’t know that beetles and diamonds have something in common, though diamonds have little in common with plastic. Maybe that was the problem.

But ask Lauren Richey of Springville, Utah, about beetles and diamonds. For her, beetles have turned into gold. Or am I mixing my metaphors here? It all started with that annual spring rite called the Science Fair. Richey started doing science fairs in junior high. At first she was not terribly successful, but then she began to win regional and national awards for research projects, usually involving light and photonics.

As a senior in high school, Richey read a paper suggesting that iridescent butterflies might contain photonic crystals. She admits she read the article mostly because of the beautiful blue butterfly on the front. But that stirred her interest, and she approached John Gardner, a professor in the Brigham Young University physics department, with her idea to examine a shimmery, green beetle, Lamprocyphus augustus, with an electron microscope. And sure enough, the beetle exoskeleton contained structure similar to photonic crystals.

Excuse me, but when I heard this story I didn’t know what a photonic crystal was. Apparently, these rare structures resemble the arrangement of carbon atoms in a diamond crystal. Their crystalline shape can affect the propagation of electromagnetic waves in the same way a semiconductor can in a computer. Photonic crystals would allow a computer to operate on light waves instead of electricity, a coveted goal in computer science. While the crystals in a beetle are too fragile for use in a computer, they might serve as a template for the manufacture of more sturdy structures.

The real significance of this story isn’t really about photonic crystals. It is about a student’s initiative, a mentor’s time and caring, and a supportive school. It’s about a student who did college-level research while a senior in high school and published a scientific paper as a freshman in college. Richey, now a sophomore in physics at BYU, has published two more research articles and taken more than 13,000 electron micrographs of beetles. She presently is examining beetles for photonic crystals similar to those in opals rather than those in diamonds.

Science fairs have been happening in Colorado since 1955. In Colorado, individual schools run a series of local competitions. Mesa State College hosts the regional fair for the Western Slope. The state fair is organized by the Colorado State Science Fair Inc., which was incorporated in 1977. Winners at state are invited to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. This is the world’s largest international pre-college science competition.

The science fair may be one of the best-kept secrets among middle school and high school students. Students can receive many different awards, in numerous categories, as well as get a taste of scientific research. Many students receive cash prizes or even scholarships. In some cases, such as Richey’s, their study can set the stage for an entire career.

The regional science fair for the Western Slope will be Feb. 18–19 at Mesa State College. If you are looking for inexpensive fun and inspiration, public viewing of projects is scheduled from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Friday the 18th and 8 a.m. to noon on Saturday the 19th.

Participating students already are heavily involved in their experiments and projects. Parents’ support, interested teachers and mentors also are essential elements of this activity. It is fascinating to see what young minds can do.

Anyway, I showed my wife the beetle story. I think she never “properly appreciated” the beetle I gave her. Could be she’s sorry now that she knows all about photonic crystals. But then, she never did wear the mosquito earrings or the silver cockroach pendant I made for her either.

Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College.


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