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Youth Forum - What It Means To Win In A Science Fair

Ranjani Saigal

Kapil Dilwali, a junior from Lexington High School won the first place at the Massachusetts State Fair for his project titled The Efficacy of Hair as a Long-Term Biomarker for Methylmercury Exposure. He describes his project and the experience.

I'm a junior at Lexington High school. This school year has been quite hectic--as understandably everybody's junior year is-- but there has been something different. So much so as I can say this has been one of the busiest and toughest school years of my life. In addition to taking 6 of the most challenging courses, I undertook the task of a new, innovative science project.  The science department requires we do a long term research experiment each year. We are all encouraged to enter into the local science fair, as many projects as are much more worthy of simply an A grade for their class. I have competed at these fairs since my freshman year but never made it to the state level. I convinced myself that since this year was my last chance, I had to strike the gold and convince the judges of the magnitude of my work. I had to win!

My project is titled The Efficacy of Hair as a Long-Term Biomarker for Methylmercury Exposure. Hair is currently used as an instantaneous biomarker for estimating a personís mercury exposure, but quantifying long-term mercury poisoning requires a detailed exposure map over time.  We designed a pilot study in association with the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) to test this stability and see if the methylmercury compound was preserved within the cysteine-rich keratin protein of hair for extended periods of time. We achieved this by testing the hair of six women of childbearing age, the most pertinent population, to one year of exposure reconstruction. Using complex statistical techniques, we examined the proximity and trends of the data and compared observed with estimated values from the dietary surveys administered. Through our analysis, we were able to support the theory of temporal stability of mercury in hair. The results of this pivotal study can be used to design more advanced methylmercury studies over long periods of time, to predict and aid in methylmercury exposure analysis and quantification for different subpopulations using new non-invasive procedures, and to benefit the ongoing Harvard trace metals studies.

Our project won the first place at the Massachusetts State Science Fair at MIT out of over 300 projects from all over the state.. W.R. Grace, Inc. awarded my team member, Don Rauscher, and me a $2000 cash award. There was so much work that had gone into the project, from not only Don and me, but also many mentors guiding us along our way who deserve thanks. Some to name would be the head of the Trace Metals Laboratory, Dr. Chitra Amarasiriwardena, our lab advisor, Nick Lupoli, and our inspirational figure, Prof. Jack Spengler of HSPH. Finally, much credit goes to our parents for providing their help and moral support.

All in all, the Massachusetts State Fair was a wonderful experience. Along with the "learning experience" of the project, winning at this type of event allows a young scientist to know that society values his or her work. The prestige and money are just extras that play a lesser role when compared to the projectís potential long-term impact. So when I walked onto stage that Friday afternoon to receive my award, I felt I had made a difference in the world. If nothing, I was at least on the road towards it; the judges must have seen some potential in my project or me. Being recognized for our work is such an honor, and I really hope I can do something in the future that will make our world a better place through science.


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