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Helping a young scientist with statewide science fair project

With equipment training and some guidance, Professor Valerie Pierre and Graduate Student Sarah Harris helped an 8th grader with her science fair project.

Interested in the health benefits of polyphenol antioxidants, which are found in teas, Atiya Anwar wanted to answer the question of how concentrations of antioxidants in subsequent flushes of the same tea types range from one to another, and which brew is most helpful in fighting free radicals. Atiya is an 8th grader at Al-Amal School in Fridley.

Atiya's school could not provide her with access to a UV-Vis spectrophotometer, which is used in ultraviolet-visible spectroscopy, the tool that she needed to conduct her experiments. Her science teacher suggested that she connect with a university. With her brother and sister attending the University of Minnesota, it was the first university that she contacted. Professor Valerie Pierre responded and gave Atiya permission to use equipment in her laboratory.

Sarah Harris, a third-year graduate student working with Pierre, offered to help. Sarah is a laboratory safety officer, and in charge of the UV-Vis spectrophotometer. As a graduate student, Sarah works with lanthanide luminescent probes. Some day she would like to combine her enjoyment of teaching with continuing to learn more about fluorescence and phosphorescence and how it works.

Sarah spent a Saturday with Atiya, first teaching her about safety in the lab such as where the first-aid kit, fire extinguisher, and eye wash and shower were located, and how to wear proper personal protective equipment, including a lab coat, goggles and gloves.

Together they read through several preps that Atiya found online for calibration curves. Sarah then taught Atiya about dilutions and molarity calculations, how to weigh and measure out solids and liquids accurately and precisely, and how to use a buchner funnel under vacuum. She supervised Atiya on preparing and running a calibration curve with gallic acid. She showed Atiya how to work the UV-Vis, and how to work up UV-Vis data.

“I have to say that being a scientist is tiring,” said Atiya. “After spending about eight hours in the lab with Sarah, I felt exhausted. However, conducting my science fair experiment at one of the university's many labs was truly an amazing and eye opening experience. . . . I was amazed at all the fancy lab equipment being provided to students. The best part about working in the lab was getting to use lab equipment I had never seen or used before. I especially liked the vortexer machine,” she said.

Atiya is appreciative of the guidance that Sarah provided. “While conducting my experiment, there was no one better to help me than Sarah,” she said. “Sarah was always there making sure I did nothing wrong, and  to answer the millions of questions I had for her. Plus, she always treated me like a true scientist.”

“Her preparation was elaborate and way above and beyond what you might expect for an 8th grader,” said Sarah. “Her level of understanding was impressive. She will make a great scientist.”

With her research, Atiya earned top honors at the recent Minnesota Academy of Science’s annual Science and Engineering Fair for her project, Fighting Free Radicals with Tea, including the Broadcom MASTERS Award, a Minnesota Academy of Science Grand Award Gold, Seagate Emerging Scientist, and Minnesota Academy of Science Middle School Paper Award 8th Grade. However, because Atiya is only in 8th grade, she cannot move on to the International Science Fair competition. She is eligible to apply to compete in the Broadcom MASTERS competition in Washington D.C.

Atiya expressed gratitude to both Sarah and Pierre. “This year’s experience with the science fair has been truly amazing, and I wouldn’t have been able to achieve this much without your help.”

Atiya is very interested in studying more science, particularly chemistry and biology. She hopes to pursue a degree in one of those areas, perhaps in a medical field, or exploring more about the chemical construction of atoms, or teaching students about the wonders of science.

“I would be happy doing almost anything connected to science,” she said.

Home page photo of Sarah Harris.
Photo above of Atiya with her science fair project.