American Girls Sweep Google’s First Science Fair
As a budding inventor and scientist, Shree Bose, in second grade, tried to make blue spinach. In fourth grade she built a remote-controlled garbage can. In eighth grade she invented a railroad tie made out of recycled plastic and granite dust, an achievement that got her to the top 30 in a national science competition for middle school students.
In 11th grade Ms. Bose, a 17-year-old in Fort Worth, tackled ovarian cancer, and that research won her the grand prize and $50,000 in the Google Science Fair last week.
For the winning research Ms. Bose looked at a chemotherapy drug, cisplatin, that is commonly taken by women with ovarian cancer. The problem is that the cancer cells tend to grow resistant to cisplatin over time, and Ms. Bose set out to find a way to counteract that.
She found the answer in a cellular energy protein known as AMPK, or adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase. She observed that when AMPK was paired with cisplatin at the beginning of treatment the combination diminished the effectiveness of cisplatin. But added later on, when the cancer cells were growing resistant, the AMPK worked to maintain the effectiveness of cisplatin, allowing it to continue killing the malignant cells, at least in cell cultures.
“That opens up a lot of new avenues for research,” Ms. Bose said. Her research was supervised by Dr. Alakananda Basu at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth.
More than 10,000 students from 91 countries entered the science fair, which was Google’s first. The entries, submitted over the Web, were winnowed down to 60 semifinalists and then 15 finalists who presented their findings to judges at Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters last week.
Ms. Bose’s research was named best in the age 17-18 category and best of show over all. Her prize includes $50,000 for future college studies, a 10-day trip to the Galapagos Islands and a separate trip to visit the CERN particle physics laboratory in Switzerland.
Girls swept all three age categories in the competition, a contrast to generations past when women were largely excluded from the science world.
“Personally I think that’s amazing, because throughout my entire life, I’ve heard science is a field where men go into,” Ms. Bose said. “It just starts to show you that women are stepping up in science, and I’m excited that I was able to represent maybe just a little bit of that.” She will start her senior year of high school in the fall.
“At the end, we were like, ‘Yeah, girl power!’ ” said Naomi Shah of Portland, Ore., who won the age 15-16 category with a study of the effects of air quality on lungs, particularly for people who have asthma. Ms. Shah recruited 103 test subjects, performed 24-hour air quality measurements at their homes and workplaces and had each blow into a device that measured the force of their breath.
Lauren Hodge of Dallastown, Pa., won the age 13-14 category for research on whether marinades reduce the amount of cancer-causing compounds produced by the grilling of meat. She found that lemon juice and brown sugar cut the level of carcinogens sharply, while soy sauce increased them.
Vint Cerf, Google’s chief Internet evangelist and one of the judges, said that gender did not play a role in deciding the winners. “This was a gender-neutral evaluation of all the work that was done,” he said. Nonetheless, “I was secretly very pleased to see that happen,” Dr. Cerf said. “This is just a reminder that women are fully capable of doing same or better quality work than men can.”
The gender tables are not entirely turned among budding scientists. Nowadays the competitors at science fairs are pretty evenly split between boys and girls, both Ms. Bose and Ms. Shah said, and 9 of the 15 finalists in the Google Science Fair were boys.
“I think that was just, like, pure coincidence,” Ms. Shah said of the girls’ sweep, “because all 15 finalists had great projects.”
Perhaps belying a bit the notion that American students are falling behind in science, the United States dominated the top slots. All three of the winners were American, as were nearly three-quarters of the finalists. About 60 percent of the entries came from Americans.
Dr. Cerf said that a common thread among the finalists was that they had explored science enthusiastically for years with the encouragement of their parents.
For Ms. Bose, it was the blue spinach that got her started. “I actually decided that children didn’t want to eat their vegetables because they were green, and so my fantastic idea for the science fair project was to turn a spinach plant blue,” she recalled.
She repeatedly injected blue food coloring into a spinach plant, and a few weeks later she took to school a shriveled, stained vegetable — she had forgotten to water it — and explained that children would eat happily each spinach if only it were blue.
“Sounds like a weird beginning, but after that I just realized that science is cool, it’s something I want to do,” said Ms. Bose, who eventually hopes to get a doctorate and a medical degree so that she can both treat patients and look for new cures. “And it’s just been getting better from there.”