Teen auto-safety researcher nabs $25,000 science fair prize

More than a dozen others also took home awards from the Broadcom MASTERS middle-school competition

Top winners at the 2019 Broadcom MASTERS competition appear center stage. From left to right: Lauren Ejiaga, Sidor Clare, Alaina Gassler, Rachel Bergey and Alexis MacAvoy. Alaina Gassler took home the $25,000 top prize. 

Linda Doane/Society for Science & the Public

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On a weekend where the nation’s capital was focused on hosting its first World Series games in seven decades, 30 young researchers from across the nation were on deck for a hard-hitting competition of their own. In a sense, all were winners already. Each had, after all, beat out hundreds of others for the chance to face off in team play. But only one contestant — Alaina Gassler, 14 — would take home the top prize: an educational award worth $25,000. Her award was one of more than a dozen announced at an evening gala on October 29. 

Alaina was one of 30 finalists from 13 states who competed in the ninth annual Broadcom MASTERS competition. MASTERS stands for Math, Applied Science, Technology and Engineering for Rising Stars. The program was created by Society for Science & the Public, which publishes Science News for Students

Alaina and the other finalists had to be in sixth, seventh or eighth grade when they competed in a local or regional science fair. To qualify for Broadcom MASTERS, their research had to have been judged within the top 10 percent of all projects at that fair. Those projects all fell within the fields of science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM). Alaina had developed a novel system aimed at boosting auto safety. 

But those qualifying projects would only account for 20 percent or so of a finalist’s score at this week’s event. The rest of the score would come from how an individual was judged while working within one of the six teams to solve a spectrum of assigned, on-the-spot science and engineering challenges.

“Congratulations to Alaina, whose project has the potential to decrease the number of automobile accidents by reducing blind spots,” says Maya Ajmera. She is president of Society for Science and the Public.

Alaina goes to school in West Grove, Penn. “I didn’t think I’d win an award this big,” she enthused at the gala. “I was happy just getting the small medal that everyone got at the beginning of the night!” she added.

The Samueli Foundation provided Alaina’s winnings. This non-profit organization was created by Broadcom founder Henry Samueli and is based in Newport Beach, Calif. 

Fifteen of the finalists took home major awards or the funds to attend a science camp of their choice. For the first time, this year, 60 percent of the finalists were female. 

Blind spot, begone!

For her qualifying project, Alaina developed a system that could eliminate some blind spots for drivers. Such areas can hide objects or other vehicles from a driver’s view. The bigger and more numerous those blind spots are, the greater the risk that a driver may have an accident.

Alaina focused on eliminating the blind spot caused by the roof support that runs on right side of the windshield (the passenger side). She picked that blind spot because the roof pillar on her family’s car is very wide. It blocks her mom’s view when she’s driving, the teen noted. 

Alaina’s system relies on a camera mounted on the front part of the passenger-side window. It’s pointed so that it can monitor things that a driver can’t see. The camera streams a video of what it’s viewing to a projector mounted over the driver’s head. That projector displays the video on a screen. It is mounted on the passenger-side roof support (between the door and windshield).

A special type of reflective fabric bounces light from the video back toward the projector. This means that only the driver can see the displayed images. Passengers won’t see or be distracted by the streaming images. To them, the display fabric simply looks dark.

Alaina faced a few problems in developing her system. For instance, she had to make a special part for the projector to focus the images it displayed. She also found that the reflective fabric for her screen doesn’t work equally well at all times of day. Images appear most clearly in dark conditions, such as those before dawn and after dark. By day, the images are largely invisible. To solve this problem, Alaina plans to make her display screen out of the light-emitting diodes (LEDs) used for computer monitors. That should work well at any time of day and allow its brightness to be easily adjusted. 

Other award winners

Lauren Ejiaga,14, of New Orleans, La., won the STEM Talent Award. Sponsored by the Department of Defense, it is worth $10,000. Her project was related to ozone. The layer of ozone in the upper atmosphere protects life on Earth from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation. But some pollutants can destroy some of this stratospheric ozone. Lauren analyzed how such ozone loss could affect the growth, development and the levels of chlorophyll in flowers known as pansies.

Sidor Clare, 14, of Sandy, Utah, won the $10,000 Marconi/Samueli Award for Innovation. Her qualifying project explored how recycled plastics could be combined with soil — potentially on Mars, one day — to make bricks. Her data suggest they would be even stronger than those made from concrete.

Rachel Bergey, 14, of Harleysville, Penn., won the $10,000 Lemelson Award for Invention. She designed a better way to trap spotted lanternflies. This invasive species causes billions of dollars in damage each year to the trees in her home state.

Alexis MacAvoy, 14, of Hillsborough, Calif., won the $10,000 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Award for Health Advancement. She qualified with a filter that removes toxic heavy metals (such as copper) from drinking water. Her low cost and “green” system uses activated carbon.

Additional finalists took home first-place awards, worth $3,500, or second-place awards, worth $2,500, in each of the STEM fields. They are:

Science

First place: Ruhi Yusuf, 13, from Newark, Calif. She studied how various ecofriendly substances such as ground-up seeds and aloe vera gel could be used to purify contaminated drinking water.

Second place: Tyler Bissoondial, 14, from Bellmore, NY. He grew radish seeds that had been exposed to radiation to see if they sustained DNA changes that would allow them to survive when irrigated with salty water (which would ordinarily poison plants).

Technology

First place: Kassie Holt, 13, from Sandy, Utah. Along with research partner Sidor Clare (who won this year’s Marconi/Samueli Award for Innovation), Kassie explored how recycled plastics could be combined with soil on Mars to make bricks there that are even stronger than concrete.

Second place: Rishab Jain, 14, from Portland, Ore. He developed a computerized technique to analyze medical images of a diseased pancreas. His goal was to help doctors identify what specific type of cancer a patient might have. 

Engineering

First place: Rylan Gardner, 14, from Mesa, Ariz. He replaced part of the front flap on an airplane wing with a rotating cylinder. The reason: to see how much it would boost lift and reduce drag on a plane. This change might also prevent spins and stalls under certain conditions.

Second place: Mercedes Randhahn, 14, from Ogden, Utah. She came up with a way to chemically break down opioid medicines. This would allow patients to dispose of any unused pills, limiting the risk of theft or abuse.

Mathematics

First place: Isabelle Katz, 15, from Moraga, Calif. She developed a way to analyze notes generated by musical instruments that might also be useful in vocal training.

Second place: Johan DeMessie, 14, from Mason, Ohio. He found a way to identify the types of salts present in drinking water. He did it by analyzing images of the coffee-ring–like deposits left behind after drops of that water evaporated.

Two additional finalists earned Rising Star awards. They are Kyle Tianshi, 13, of San Diego, Calif. and Mary Shea Ballantine, 13, of Louisville, Ky. Kyle built a device that uses a laser, microscope and imaging software to detect and measure the sizes of microplastic particles present in water. Mary Shea studied the effects of vehicle exhaust on bacteria commonly found on a person’s skin or in their lungs. 

Both Rising Star winners will take part in the Broadcom MASTERS International event in Anaheim, Calif. As part of that trip next May, they also will be official observers at the International Science and Engineering Fair. This program from Society for Science & the Public is the world’s largest international science fair.

“These young innovators give every one of us hope for the future,” says Broadcom Foundation president Paula Golden. 

About Sid Perkins

Sid Perkins is an award-winning science writer who lives in Crossville, Tenn., with his wife, two dogs and three cats. He enjoys cooking and woodworking, and he really, really wants to get better at golf.

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