Student experiment puts frogs on a diet Winners: Science fairs at Towson State and Morgan State universities showcase the work of the next generation of scientists.

April 02, 1997|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's National Aquarium had a problem with some of its poison-dart frogs, whose brilliant red, yellow and orange colors -- vibrant in their natural home in the rain forests of Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia -- were fading in captivity.

That's bad for the aquarium, which wants to show authentic replicas of wildlife, and bad for the frog species -- because it fuels the market for frogs caught in the wild.

Elizabeth Gladmon, a 12th-grader at Woodlawn High School, helped restore the colors with a school experiment that dusted the frogs' food with a natural dye found in the wild, a project that earned her a spot at next month's Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Louisville, Ky.

The aquarium, where Elizabeth conducted her research, has made the dye -- called Canthaxanthin -- part of the tiny frogs' regular diet and plans to submit Elizabeth's work to a scientific journal.

"Within our field it's a big step forward," said Sandra L. Barnett, senior herpetologist at the aquarium. "It confirms the contribution of diet to the coloration of animals and it has implications for the survival of the species in the wild."

Elizabeth was among four high school students in the metropolitan area who won overall prizes in regional science competitions recently and will join an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 teen-agers from around the world in Louisville.

Two of those four -- Elizabeth and 10th-grader Lorna Nielsen -- are enrolled in the 4-year-old science research magnet program at Baltimore County's Woodlawn High, a school that held its first school-based science fair only this year.

Elizabeth took the grand prize in biological science at the Baltimore Science Fair at Towson State University, and Lorna won the same honor at the Morgan State University Science-Mathematics-Engineering Fair, both held the weekend of March 22.

Also advancing to the international competition are:

Amanda Shaw, a ninth-grader at Baltimore's Western High School, who claimed Morgan State's physical science prize for examining the effects of carbon dioxide on global warming.

Sabyasachi Guharay, a junior at Wilde Lake High School in Howard County, who won in physical science at Towson State for a project called "A Mathematical Model to Study Correlations Across the Three Domains of Life," which expands upon the knowledge of introns, the noncoding region of the gene.

The fairs brought unprecedented recognition for Woodlawn. It was the first time that two Woodlawn students have claimed grand prizes in both fairs, said Stephanie Bailey, Woodlawn's science fair coordinator. And it's the second time in five years that two students from one school have won overall prizes in both events, said Morgan State's fair director, Anasuya Swamy.

Lorna, a self-proclaimed environmentalist, examined how lawn fertilizers affect the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay. Using four turf grass plots, three types of fertilizer and a soil test kit, she measured the runoff for nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and PH levels. The nutrients, commonly found in fertilizer, wash into storm drains, then into the bay.

Among her conclusions: organic fertilizer is the least harmful sort, producing less runoff and a healthier lawn. People should buy fertilizer with a high percentage of insoluble nutrients, which don't mix with water and run off.

"When people hear 'nutrients,' they think it will help," Lorna said. "The reality is they produce millions of tons of living algae that will suffocate the bay and reduce the dissolved oxygen. The sunlight can't get through to the bottom plants and they'll die. That affects the whole food chain. The little fish that feed on them will die."

Experts said Elizabeth's frog project could have political results; the vibrant colors make the frogs a public favorite and draw people into the conservation movement.

"These frogs do an excellent job as ambassadors to the wild," said Elizabeth's supervisor at the aquarium, Geoff Hall. "It's like a billboard. Then, once we grab people's attention, they start looking at the small brown toad and saying, 'That's a pretty spectacular animal as well.' Elizabeth's work has some pretty profound implications if you extrapolate a bit."

A 12-year-old also made a mark on the region's science world this year. Pikesville Middle's Jacob Lillywhite became the first sixth-grader to place first in the middle school competition at the Towson fair in at least 10 years, said fair director Thomas D. Ferrara.

Jacob's biological science experiment compared the way boys and girls remember gender-oriented items, such as footballs, video games, planes, Barbie dolls, high heels and lipstick.

He got the idea while watching television, wondering about the messages society sends boys and girls about which toys are acceptable.

He went to his old elementary school, Summit Park, and interviewed five girls and five boys, showing them pictures of items for 15 seconds apiece, then testing their recall. He analyzed the results on a Microsoft Excel computer program that he taught himself to use.

The boys had a greater bias, remembering 16 percent more boy-things than girl-things, while the girls remembered only 4 percent more girl-things than boy-things.

"I think it was because girls had more exposure to both worlds than boys, and because they play sports and video games like boys do, and boys only play sports and video games but not girl-things like Barbies," said the aspiring doctor.

The four high school winners, along with their teachers, will have expenses-paid trips to the international fair -- Towson State's winners courtesy of the Towson and Baltimore Kiwanis clubs, and Morgan's winners from the university and a National Science Foundation grant.

Pub Date: 4/02/97

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