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Daughter of UH Superconductivity Expert Presents Project at White House Science Fair

By: 

Audrey Grayson
Kavita Selva

In the case of Kavita Selva, 14-year-old daughter of M.D. Anderson Chair Professor of Mechanical Engineering Venkat Selvamanickam, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Selvamanickam, who also serves as director of the Texas Center for Superconductivity’s Applied Research Hub at the University of Houston, is a world-renowned expert in superconductivity research. Prior to joining UH, Selvamanickam co-founded SuperPower, the first company to manufacture thin film superconductor wire, just eight years after earning his Ph.D. from UH. He’s received the Presidential Early Career Achievement Award, several R&D 100 awards, and was even named the Superconductor Industry Person of the Year in 2004.

But Selvamanickam’s daughter, Kavita, may soon be adding her own superconductivity trophies to her dad’s trophy shelf. Last year, Kavita applied to enter the 2013 Google Science Fair, where she was chosen as one of only 15 global finalists out of thousands of participants for her project on making strong magnets using superconducting tape instead of rare earth materials such as elements such as neodymium.

From there, Kavita entered her science project in the 2014 Science and Engineering Fair of Houston (SEFH), where she took home the First Place Grand Award in Physical Sciences. Kavita’s win at the SEFH qualified her to compete at the 2014 Intel Science and Engineering Fair, at which she earned a third place award in the physics and astronomy category.

Now, Kavita is one of 100 students from more than 30 states chosen to present their science projects at the fourth White House Science Fair. Kavita exhibited her novel magnet designs to senior White House Administration officials as well as leading STEM communicators, advocates and educators. Attendees at the White House Science Fair included John P. Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, Arne Duncan, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Harold Varmus, Director of the National Cancer Insistute (NCI), Cora Marrett, Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), and even Bill Nye the Science Guy (watch Kavita's interview with Bill Nye the Science Guy here!).

“The White House Science Fair was incredible. I kept thinking I was watching it on T.V. or I was dreaming, and had to remind myself, ‘No this is real life’,” Kavita explained.

Kavita was inspired to pursue her science project after reading a story in National Geographic about the impending global shortage of metals and elements used in magnets, called “rare earths.” China is currently the largest producer of rare earths, supplying over 95 percent of the world’s rare earth elements. However, some analysts believe that demand will soon surpass China’s supply of rare earths, which are essential for manufacturing computers, car motors, and, of course, magnets.

Magnets themselves are essential to many modern technologies, such as motors and wind turbines. Without rare earths, there would be no magnets – which, as Kavita knew, meant there would be no wind turbines or car motors. So, she set out to create a magnet which didn’t rely solely on rare earths; and, as luck would have it, she had access to lots of superconducting tape and superconductivity experts through Selvamanickam’s laboratory at UH.

Kavita teamed up with one of Selvamanickam’s fellow researchers at the Texas Center for Superconductivity, research assistant professor Goran Majkic, to get some professional guidance on her idea for replacing rare earths with superconducting tape in magnets. Using superconductor tape – a strip of metal tape coated with superconductor material – Kavita said they were able to trap the magnetic field inside of the tape by exposing it to an external magnetic field.

Kavita investigated several different types of superconductor tapes and various configurations to stack them and the result was a strong magnet containing a very small amount of rare earths. Kavita and Majkic published their findings in the journal Superconductor Science and Technology. Their article, titled “Trapped magnetic field profiles for arrays of (Gd,Y)Ba2Cu3Ox superconductor tape in different stacking configurations,” was published last year.

To many middle and high school students around Kavita’s age, science fairs are simply a boring and unnecessary exercise in earning extra credit. In fact, less and less public schools in the U.S. are hosting science fairs or requiring students to participate in state-sponsored science fairs. However, many experts believe science fairs are extremely important for engaging students in STEM careers – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

One such expert is former astronaut Bonnie J. Dunbar, director of the UH STEM Center and the aerospace engineering program at the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering. Dunbar, who jumped at the opportunity to take on the position of director of the Science and Engineering Fair of Houston (SEFH) last year, believes such fairs are crucial to encouraging more young students to learn, understand, and hopefully one day pursue careers in STEM.

“The nation is facing a shortage of qualified scientists and engineers, a situation described in the 2012 report by President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. The challenge to the nation is to graduate one million new scientists and engineers by 2020,” Dunbar said.

“In order to graduate more scientists and engineers, we need more and better-prepared math and science high school students for our colleges of engineering, math and science,” she said. “That translates into biology, chemistry and physics and four years of math by high school graduation. At the completion of a college education in engineering, math, biology, chemistry, and physics are a wealth of careers with opportunities to creatively solve some of the most pressing challenges of our time.”

A 2013 Brookings Report identified a clear need in Houston. It reported that Houston ranked 5th in STEM career demand out of 100 U.S. cities, but 72nd in supplying STEM workers. About two-thirds of the local STEM workforce with at least a bachelor’s degree comes from outside of Texas; almost one-fourth were born outside of the United States.

As for Kavita, she said she’s still too young to know exactly what she’d like to do with her STEM talent when she finishes high school, but wants to incorporate her love for physics and biology into a career when she finishes college. Thanks to her background and experience in conducting high-level research and presenting her results at national and international science fairs, she will be well-prepared to take on whatever the next steps of her STEM education and career might be.

Listen to NPR's interview with Kavita and Clear Lake High School: http://www.houstonpublicmedia.org/news/houston-students-join-white-house-science-fair/.

Read Venturebeat's article featuring Kavita and her science fair project: http://venturebeat.com/2014/05/27/5-teens-from-the-white-house-science-fair-wholl-make-you-optimistic-about-the-future/.

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