Wilsonville student shines amidst world's best young scientists
The Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) brought the world's top young scientists to Los Angeles two weeks ago, where students from 78 different countries shared groundbreaking projects with industry professional judges.
Approximately 1,800 high school students shared their hard work over the past year, including six students from West Linn-Wilsonville Schools.
Wilsonville High students Nathan Tidball, Kristopher Wieland, Jared Wieland and Jareth Anderson were joined by West Linn High's Jessica Yu and Daniel Tang in the competition portion of ISEF, while Wilsonville High's Michelle Stevens and Hannah Budroe attended as observers.
WL-WV students didn't just compete among the world's best and brightest scientists, they impressed, with Tidball winning a Third Award in the Environmental Engineering category for his project titled "Single Chamber MFC: Filtration of Arsenic with an Exoelectrogenic Biofilm" and Yu winning an Honorable Mention from the International Council on Systems Engineering for her project titled "Safe with Me Now: A Novel System to Prevent Vehicular Hypothermia in Children."
Tidball's work in particular centered on microbial fuel cells and toxic waste remediation — essentially looking for a bacteria to filter arsenic out of ground water.
"My main research was the bacteria's tolerance to certain toxins. I looked into the bacteria's tolerance to arsenic, and because there's a high arsenic content in a lot of the groundwater in Portland and groundwater in other places, it's often a hazard to other digesters, other bacterias," Tidball says. "I found a sweet spot at which the bacteria, in between low and high concentrations, could be surrounded by arsenic — a very lethal concentration of it — but not be affected by it.
"So (the bacteria) can take in the arsenic, and the real knock-it-out-of-the-park part of it is that when I tested the system for arsenic content afterward, I found that the arsenic had actually taken in the arsenic, consumed it, and once I filtered the bacteria out, there was less arsenic in the remaining media."
Tidball, who was an observer at last year's international fair and won $1,000 in scholarship money for his Third Award this year, first participated in the school district's CREST-Jane Goodall Science Symposium before moving on to the state competition in March. From there, he and his fellow classmates joined a couple dozen other ISEF qualifiers from Team Oregon for last week's international competition. The event served as the culmination of the science fair season for Tidball and other WL-WV students, who started on their projects as early as last June in some cases.
Tidball says his project required hours and hours of reading professional studies and scientific articles to understand the world of microbiology, and that acquiring materials was one of the biggest obstacles he faced. He also had to balance cross-country and FIRST Robotics practices during the school year, which meant lots of missed school for various races and competitions.
"Especially when I first started I emailed a few professors from around and got answers for a few questions I asked about specific experiments they're doing," Tidball says. "I kind of got a feel for where there were openings for research to be done at this time, and I had a lot of help from the supervisors, who helped me with lab equipment."
Tidball says interacting with high schoolers from all over the world was a highlight of his week in Los Angeles, giving him inspiration for his next science endeavor.
"The people across from my project were from the United Arab Emirates, and a little bit down from me there was a group of kids from India and a group of kids from Australia. When I won my award I went up there and talked to people around me, and there were kids from Ireland, Australia, a kid from Finland, and I realized I was the only person actually from America on the stage," he says. "It was great to meet so many people and learn from their experiences."
While Tidball has specialized in microbiology for his ISEF projects during both his freshman and sophomore years, he says he ultimately wants to work in physics and aerospace engineering. He says he plans to stay within the microbiology study area for his junior project, since that's where he considers himself something of an expert. He also plans to continue work on his award-winning project, with the goal of genetically modifying geobacter to increase its resistance to toxins. He would also like to publish his findings in the scientific community if he's able to access higher-end equipment and refine his data.
"I took quite a few pictures at the international fair. There were a lot of crazy projects. There were kids that solved different forms of cancer and so forth, and so I'd take pictures of their boards, look at their procedures and talk with them about how they got involved with the research. I'm actually looking about getting into a lab space with a little bit better equipment — that sort of thing. I'm more or less setting myself up for next year rather than looking into new ideas."
While he appreciates the recognition that International Science and Engineering Fair gave him, he says the science processes and learning are what's most important to him. He says he was inspired by the work of his peers, and plans to work just as hard next year.
"The fair is a nice little icing on the cake and winning the award was really nice," he says. "But the process and getting a project together, and physically making a discovery, learning something that no one else has learned before — that under these specific conditions you'll have this specific outcome and you know that with 100 percent certainty, and no one else has done that before — I think that's really cool."