Science fairs have come a long way from baking soda volcanoes and pet store mice in a homemade maze. What were once ill-attended exhibitions in middle school cafeterias are now grand tournaments with international circuits, and the Science and Engineering Fair of Houston (SEFH) -- presented by 2014 primary sponsor, Chevron Corporation -- is leading the way for scientific and engineering advancement.
University of Houston freshman Manvitha Katta, biochemistry major in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, is the one of the most recent faces of SEFH success. In last year’s competition, she took home the Grand Award, which is the top honor awarded at the competition. Her project was titled “Antimicrobial and Heavy Sequestration Capacities of Graphene Polymer Nanocomposite Films,” and it is as impressive as it sounds. Essentially, her project tests different filters’ efficiencies at removing heavy metals and bacteria from water. Now enrolled at the University of Houston in an 8-year program which will culminate in her obtaining her doctorate, Katta is considering a post-doctoral career involving global health and clean water.
As SEFH Grand Award winner, Katta also won entry in to the International Science Engineering Fair competition in Phoenix, Arizona. At this competition, her project was awarded the K.T. Li Foundation Special Award. Her prize? A trip to Taiwan in January 2014 to participate in the Taiwan International Science Fair.
Katta began competing in science fairs in third grade. “I just wanted to continue that in high school because I really liked the experience,” she said. Her first project involved a color wheel connected to a motor and the colors that were visible to the human eye as the wheel spun.
However, as a sophomore at Michael E. DeBakey High School for Health Professions in Houston, Katta found she was quickly outgrowing the available resources offered by her school. She reached out to local colleges and Dr. Debora Rodrigues, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the Cullen College of Engineering at the UH, was happy to help. Rodrigues offered Katta lab space and in turn, Katta expanded on Rodrigues’ research on graphene nanofilms, which resulted in her science fair project. “She took me in and taught me how to work everything,” Katta said.
Katta said she was impressed with how responsive and attentive Rodrigues was with her, and that the mentorship has continued now that she is a student at UH. “I got so much attention and had so much access to [University of Houston’s] resources as a high school student, and now as a college student here, there is so much more that I can take advantage of… UH is great because it really supports you as a student. If you want to learn, they’ll push you, they’ll help you get there.”
Katta spent the bulk of her summer break in 2012 working in Rodrigues’ laboratory. The discovery of graphene is still a new one, so Katta’s research included poring over Rodrigues’ research papers as well as several trials, which didn’t always go as expected. “The biggest lessons I’ve learned are from science fairs. [Mistakes] teach you a lot of patience,” she said.
But making mistakes hasn’t hampered Katta’s enthusiasm for science fairs. On competition day, she said “you’re nervous, but all of the judges are really nice and supportive. They try to make you think in the grander scheme of things.” Explaining her concept to judges, she said, has also helped her hone her communications skills. Perhaps more than anything, though, Katta said she enjoyed the opportunity to meet fellow scientists. “The people you meet are amazing. They’re really excited about everything. It’s really contagious, their enthusiasm.”
Now, SEFH is gearing up for its new class of competitors in grades 7-12 who will exhibit their science and engineering projects at the George R. Brown Convention Center on February 19th and 20th. The competition will be followed by an award ceremony held at the University of Houston on February 22nd. Students may continue to register to compete in the fair through January 31, 2014.
For new and even returning competitors, Katta said the most important lesson she learned was to “understand every single part of your project, every single term you use.” Science fairs are what you make of them, she said. “You can’t be intimidated by it. Once you go in there, you’ll probably like it… You just have to be curious.”
Aside from impressing the judging panel, Katta had one more piece of important advice: “Just have a lot of fun. Talk to everyone around you. You meet so many people, and it is so inspiring.”