The Science Bug

For some high school students, the rite of spring is played out not on a grassy field but in the fierce challenge of science fair competitions

April 04, 2000|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

Science burns like a fever when it first takes a kid, even late bloomers such as Mani Kahn who wake up one day at 17 standing over a gel laced with DNA and suddenly realize the world has changed.

Friends cruise at night without him. The lacrosse team loses a player. Somewhere a boy has vanished among flasks and Bunsen burners on a search for answers to an experiment with an exhausting name -- "The Role of ADH2*3 and Parental Environmental Exposures on Birth Weight and Gestational Age."

On days when he would otherwise lift weights at the gym or rumble bare-knuckled with buddies in a karate class, Kahn prepared for an unlikely rite of spring.

The season of science fairs runs from February to May all across the country, coinciding with final basketball games and colleges' spring breaks. Silenced gymnasiums and empty campuses open to crowds teeming with 13-year-olds who have tested toothpastes or soaps and high school seniors, such as Kahn, who have tumbled into some black hole of a hypothesis and come away with a find.

It is a surprising passion. As Kahn says, "It's not the prestige, it's the pursuit."

He became this spring's dark horse as a student at Centennial High School in Ellicott City, pursuing a project as an intern in a University of Maryland lab in Baltimore. Over the year, he had examined 1,200 blood samples from infants in Maryland to see whether a genetic variation in some babies protects them from potentially harmful substances mothers expose themselves to during pregnancy -- everything from hair dyes to caffeine to alcohol.

The project won the Howard County science fair late in February, and Kahn honed his verbal skill presenting to dozens of judges at the College Park fair in early March.

By the time he set up Saturday for the 45th annual Baltimore Science Fair at Towson University, he was ready. The awards amounted to little more than ribbons and calculators and $100 savings bonds. But as the last in this year's sequence of local contests, Baltimore represented the final step to the granddaddy of competitions, the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair in May, when prizes rise to $40,000 scholarships and an invitation to Nobel Prize festivities in Stockholm.

A fair can transform the winner. Last year, a popular film titled "October Sky" told the true story of a young boy's unlikely escape from his West Virginia coal town after winning a high school science fair that launched an illustrious career in aeronautics. A few years ago an Intel winner was a girl from Appalachia who grew up in a home without running water or electricity. Today she studies at Princeton.

The Intel Science Search (formerly sponsored by Westinghouse) counts among its alumni five Nobel laureates, nine MacArthur Foundation winners and three recipients of the National Medal of Science.

So for six hours Saturday behind the closed doors of Towson's student union, Kahn and more than 160 kids had reason to submit to an inquisition about projects some had taken two years to complete. With the level of local competition at its peak and judges scrutinizing the most innocuous flaws, merely conquering intimidation could be the sweetest reward.

Kahn seemed characteristically unflappable.

It wasn't meant to happen this way. Although at the Howard County fair, Kahn beat Centennial's best and brightest, his mere entry into the contest challenged the preconceptions of his teachers.

"I hate to say it, but I was a little surprised," said his research project adviser, Michelle Bagley. "Mani's more of an average Joe."

True, even as a bright student, he did not run with the select -- the ones who organize school dances, set athletic records and lead after-school clubs. He acknowledges being previously uninspired by science, wholly unmotivated by the quest for a perfect grade point average and unimpressed by the example of the school "intellectuals." Unlike kids he calls "spirited" or the ones enrolled only in gifted and talented classes, Kahn was a lot less concerned about the kinds of ambitions held by students who refer to their anxious combining of extra-curriculars and advanced courses as a "high school career."

Here's a kid with a clean beard and a car with a fluorescent stick shift. His idea of fun once might have meant dragging a trash can from a friend's bumper through the neighborhood.

A few teachers objected to his application to the school's science internship program last spring. They didn't like the kids he hung out with or think he fit the profile of a suitably serious young man.

"Mani had some wild oats to sow," said Bagley, who wondered herself whether she could trust him to leave school to work at a lab during the day.

When he heard their qualms, Kahn wasn't sure exactly how to explain himself.

Maybe he wanted a challenge. Maybe he just stopped underestimating himself. Maybe, with a year left in high school, he saw time running out.

"I guess I wasn't ready for something like this before," he said.

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