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Midvale Journal

Sweet satisfaction: Student-scientists score several state successes

Aug 10, 2023 01:22PM ● By Julie Slama

The team didn’t win gold, but there was still a silver lining for Hillcrest High’s Science Olympiad team.

In its second year rebuilding after the COVID-19 pandemic, the team increased in numbers to about 40 students and secured three silver medals at the state competition.

Science club student president and senior Priyanka Mathews earned a silver medal with sophomore teammate Anika Mukherjee; junior Vivaan Rejesh also was a second-place finisher. State Science Olympiad was held at Southern Utah University in Cedar City.

“This year was pretty exciting because we had a lot of freshmen, which meant we had a lot of new faces and a lot of interest, and it gave our veterans a chance to mentor them for the competitions,” she said. “We had two teams at every competition except state, so it was rewarding to help them with their first experiences.”

Leading up to the state competition, veteran team members created and shared their “library” of notes and research for the Science Olympiad competitions and helped prepare the younger students.

The team competed in two regional tournaments — one in Davis County, where students earned a second and a third place, and another at Snow College, where the team earned two first places, one second, and five third-place finishes.

Club adviser Zahra Barkley said that it was freshman and sophomores who made a name for themselves this year.

“A lot of the underclassmen performed at really high levels; they were dedicating time and effort to studying and learning these new events so I'm excited to see their successes going forward,” said the second-year adviser.

Science Olympiad is part of the school’s science club, which in addition to other activities, hosted guest speakers, including researcher David Kluger who spoke about brain-computer interface, a new technology that connects the human brain to a computer, and another, Julia McGonigle, who talked about genetic testing of the microbial genomes from hydrothermal vents in animals’ mouths.

“The kids were really intrigued about that and engaged in that so going forward I would love to see more speakers and even pairing with topics in their science classes,” Barkley said.

It also includes science fair, which had several Hillcrest students earn top finishes and special recognitions. 

In computer science and applied computational methods, junior Vishwa Murugappan placed third; and in medicine, biology and microbiology, senior Jayashabari Shankar and freshman Narayani Shankar earned fourth; and in health sciences and biomedical engineering junior Aarav Parikh placed fourth.

The Shankar sisters received the University of Utah’s ACCESS Scholarship Program Director’s Initiation and College of Science Nomination as well as an award from the U of U Health Division of Infection Diseases; junior Sang Hyun Chun received an award from the Office of Naval Research and Mukherjee received an honor from the U.S. Air Force.

“I was really impressed with the students and just their initiation with doing their science or project; it was really impressive and there was a lot of really great feedback on those from the judges,” Barkley said. 

She said that the club already has a leadership team in place for the next year and a promise from the school’s robotics teacher to help advise on some building contests.

“We’re wanting to build our resources into this and get help with more of the events so students can have various people and sources that can help them learn, point them toward research so they’re even more prepared in the future,” she said. “I’ve really noticed an emphasis on students’ dedication and the importance they put on this.”

Mathews, who was awarded the prestigious Presidential Scholar soon after the state competition — one of three from the state, became interested in science as a first grader. 

“My first experience with science was definitely what convinced me to go into scientific research as a career. I was very taken by the process of research, and the idea of creating new knowledge and being the first person to figure something out that nobody in the world has ever known before,” said the Columbia University-bound student. “I like the fact that everything is meticulously controlled, and that it requires some level of creativity to achieve that control. That dichotomy between creativity and technicality I learned in elementary school in my early scientific experiments was instrumental in pushing me into a scientific career. In high school, more than that, it was learning how to allow myself to make mistakes in certain ways, but then, still being proud of what I've accomplished. The biggest thing I learned from science was that even if you don't achieve what you set out to do, you still achieved something.”

Mathews said her first science experiment was testing the living viability of brine shrimp in different types of salts. 

“I put different types of salts in their waters to see which ones survived the most, but I didn't know enough to realize that whether it's kosher salt, granulated sea salt or table salt, salt is the same,” she said.

Last year Mathews competed at Genius Olympiad geared toward environmental projects. She also was a Clark Scholar and performed research at Texas Tech. This summer, she was selected to attend the 2023 National Youth Science Camp as one of two Utah representatives to that event that also invites international delegates.

“I like Science Olympiad though because I get to learn and research expanded from class topics,” said the state silver medalist in cell biology. “But I like to research more because I put a lot of pressure on myself to win competitions and sometimes that takes away from the experience itself. I’ve learned there has already been discovered and I have to learn that before I can go and make my own impact.”

Mathews’ career goal is to become a biochemical engineer in pharmaceutical research and development.

She said her opportunities through science club in high school provided insight into her future as well as gave her leadership experience and polished her communication skills.

“It gave me a lot of drive, and I hope it did for others,” Mathews said. “As the year went on, we saw more and more people place during Science Olympiad. I hope the younger students saw what's possible and hopefully, that will continue on, not only in competitions, but in their future.”λ