Teen auto-safety researcher nabs $25,000 science fair prize | Science News for Students

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
Oct 30, 2019 — 12:17 pm EST
Broadcom winners

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:


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).


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. 


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.


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. 

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

annual     Adjective for something that happens every year. (in botany) A plant that lives only one year, so it usually has a showy flower and produces many seeds.

bacteria     (singular: bacterium) Single-celled organisms. These dwell nearly everywhere on Earth, from the bottom of the sea to inside other living organisms (such as plants and animals). Bacteria are one of the three domains of life on Earth.

Broadcom MASTERS     Created in 2011 by the Society for Science & the Public, Broadcom MASTERS (Math, Applied Science, Technology and Engineering Rising Stars) is the premier middle school science and engineering fair competition. Broadcom MASTERS International gives select middle school students from around the world a unique opportunity to attend the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair.

cancer     Any of more than 100 different diseases, each characterized by the rapid, uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. The development and growth of cancers, also known as malignancies, can lead to tumors, pain and death.

carbon     The chemical element having the atomic number 6. It is the physical basis of all life on Earth. Carbon exists freely as graphite and diamond. It is an important part of coal, limestone and petroleum, and is capable of self-bonding, chemically, to form an enormous number of chemically, biologically and commercially important molecules.

chlorophyll     Any of several green pigments found in plants that perform photosynthesis — creating sugars (foods) from carbon dioxide and water.

concentration     (in chemistry) A measurement of how much of one substance has been dissolved into another.

concrete     (in construction) A simple, two-part building material. One part is made of sand or ground-up bits of rock. The other is made of cement, which hardens and helps bind the grains of material together.

drag     A slowing force exerted by air or other fluid surrounding a moving object.

engineering     The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems.

exhaust     (in engineering) The gases and fine particles emitted — often at high speed and/or pressure — by combustion (burning) or by the heating of air. Exhaust gases are usually a form of waste.

filter     (in chemistry and environmental science) A device or system that allows some materials to pass through but not others, based on their size or some other feature. 

focus     The point at which rays (of light or heat for example) converge sometimes with the aid of a lens. (In vision, verb, "to focus") The action a person's eyes take to adapt to light and distance, enabling them to see objects clearly.

gel     A gooey or viscous material that can flow like a thick liquid.

green     (in chemistry and environmental science) An adjective to describe products and processes that will pose little or no harm to living things or the environment.

innovation     (v. to innovate; adj. innovative) An adaptation or improvement to an existing idea, process or product that is new, clever, more effective or more practical.

invasive species     (also known as aliens) A species that is found living, and often thriving, in an ecosystem other than the one in which it evolved. Some invasive species were deliberately introduced to an environment, such as a prized flower, tree or shrub. Some entered an environment unintentionally, such as a fungus whose spores traveled between continents on the winds. Still others may have escaped from a controlled environment, such as an aquarium or laboratory, and begun growing in the wild. What all of these so-called invasives have in common is that their populations are becoming established in a new environment, often in the absence of natural factors that would control their spread. Invasive species can be plants, animals or disease-causing pathogens. Many have the potential to cause harm to wildlife, people or to a region’s economy.

laser     A device that generates an intense beam of coherent light of a single color. Lasers are used in drilling and cutting, alignment and guidance, in data storage and in surgery.

LED     (short for light emitting diode) Electronic components that, as their name suggests, emit light when electricity flows through them. LEDs are very energy-efficient and often can be very bright. They have lately been replacing conventional lights for home and commercial lamps.

lift     An upward force on an object. It may occur when an object (such as a balloon) is filled with a gas that weighs less than air; it can also result when a low-pressure area occurs above an object (such as an airplane wing).

microplastic     A small piece of plastic, 5 millimeters (0.2 inch) or smaller in size. Microplastics may have been produced at that small size, or their size may be the result of the breakdown of water bottles, plastic bags or other things that started out larger.

microscope     An instrument used to view objects, like bacteria, or the single cells of plants or animals, that are too small to be visible to the unaided eye.

monitor     To test, sample or watch something, especially on a regular or ongoing basis.

mutation     (v. mutate) Some change that occurs to a gene in an organism’s DNA. Some mutations occur naturally. Others can be triggered by outside factors, such as pollution, radiation, medicines or something in the diet. A gene with this change is referred to as a mutant.

novel     Something that is clever or unusual and new, as in never seen before.

opioid     Drugs or natural substances that act on receptors (cell molecules) that can block pain signals from traveling along nerves. It can also cause euphoria, intense, pleasurable feelings of well-being. Opioids take their name from opium, a strong painkiller, which was first made from poppies, a types of flower.

ozone     A colorless gas that forms high in the atmosphere and at ground level. When it forms at Earth’s surface, ozone is a pollutant that irritates eyes and lungs. It is also a major ingredient of smog.

pancreas     A gland found in animals with backbones that secretes the hormone insulin and enzymes that help break down foods in the gut.

particle     A minute amount of something.

plastic     Any of a series of materials that are easily deformable; or synthetic materials that have been made from polymers (long strings of some building-block molecule) that tend to be lightweight, inexpensive and resistant to degradation.

reflective     Adjective that refers to the ability of something to reflect light strongly. Such objects can produce a strong bright glare when sunlight bounces off of them. Examples of reflective objects include a mirror, a smooth metal can, a car window, a glass bottle, ice, snow or the watery surface of a lake.

risk     The chance or mathematical likelihood that some bad thing might happen. For instance, exposure to radiation poses a risk of cancer. Or the hazard — or peril — itself. (For instance: Among cancer risks that the people faced were radiation and drinking water tainted with arsenic.)

salt     A compound made by combining an acid with a base (in a reaction that also creates water). The ocean contains many different salts — collectively called “sea salt.” Common table salt is a made of sodium and chlorine.

Society for Science and the Public     A nonprofit organization created in 1921 and based in Washington, D.C. Since its founding, the Society has been promoting not only public engagement in scientific research but also the public understanding of science. It created and continues to run three renowned science competitions: the Regeneron Science Talent Search (begun in 1942), the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (initially launched in 1950) and Broadcom MASTERS (created in 2010). The Society also publishes award-winning journalism: in Science News (launched in 1922) and Science News for Students (created in 2003). Those magazines also host a series of blogs (including Eureka! Lab).

software     The mathematical instructions that direct a computer’s hardware, including its processor, to perform certain operations.

species     A group of similar organisms capable of producing offspring that can survive and reproduce.

spectrum     (plural: spectra) A range of related things that appear in some order

STEM     An acronym (abbreviation made using the first letters of a term) for science, technology, engineering and math.

technology     The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.

toxic     Poisonous or able to harm or kill cells, tissues or whole organisms. The measure of risk posed by such a poison is its toxicity.