The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

April 8, 2013

Superb studies: Two Seneca students headed to science "Super Bowl" in Arizona

By Kevin McClintock
Globe Staff Writer

SENECA, Mo. — Armed with detailed projects on the cutting edges of science, two Seneca High School students will display months of research at the "Super Bowl" of science competitions in Arizona next month. Freshman Christian Smith and junior Bryant Heckart will spend a week in Phoenix during the second week of May representing Southwest Missouri at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the world's largest international pre-college science competition. In all, there will be 1,500 high school students from 70 countries, regions and territories.

Fractal finish

Fifteen-year-old Smith is the school district's first-ever freshman to compete at the annual Intel competition, having won late last month in the "computer science/engineering/mathematics" category at regionals on the Missouri Southern State University campus.

Smith's project has to do with "fractals and space-floating curves," a subject he admits can cause some people's eyes to glaze over.

"What I wanted to see was if a space-filling curve could be produced by a fractal that expanded both inward and outward," Smith said.

Using both geometry and algebra, he was able to do just that, as his colorful board demonstrated. He grinned while explaining it, about the self-similar shapes, of detailed patterns repeating themselves, and of French/American mathematician Benoit B. Mandelbrot. All important stuff, he stressed.

He quipped that he had to "brighten up his board" because not a whole lot of people find mathematics interesting.

"It took me a long time (to understand it all) simply because it was hard to comprehend and even understand what I was doing," Smith said. "I won't say I know everything about it because I don't. I'm still learning. But I do plan on continuing the project next year and to learn more about it and presenting my findings."

He got the idea from Missouri Southern mathematics professor Grant Lathrom, who taught him everything he knows about fractals, he said.

"And I was really, really interested in it, because I love learning," he said. "So this was actually a great project for me simply because I knew nothing about (the subject) prior."

Smith said he was shocked when he won.

"I didn't think my project was all that good but I guess everybody thinks it is," he said with a chuckle. "I was very surprised that I got first place in my category and that I won the grand prize. It was all very, very unbelievable to me. But incredible. I felt like jumping around."

Smith hopes to become either a theoretical physicist or an astrophysicist.

Essential research

Seventeen-year-old Heckart grew up wanting to be a scientist. He was introduced to science competitions in the sixth grade, when his first-ever experiment involved the tested, tried-in-true erupting volcano, he said with a grin.

His experiments have matured greatly since grade school. The intent of his research project was to determine if plant-essential oils would inhibit bacterial growth both alone and in combination with common antibiotics.

Resistances to life-saving antibiotic by hostile strains are becoming a global threat, he said.

"So I wanted to apply these aspects of essential oils with antibiotics," he said, "to create more powerful antibiotics and make them more effective."

He competed and won in the microbiology category during regionals.

"It was a very humbling experience (to win) because there were so many quality projects there," Heckart said. "And just to be selected to represent my school and my community alone is an honor itself."

He said his mouth dropped open when his name was announced, particularly because he was going up against students from other schools who had already competed at previous Intel competitions.

"I almost wasn't able to stand up."

While competing at Intel will no doubt spice up his resume, it's not all about the competition.

"In fact, it's really only one day that is competition," he said. "The rest is learning, to engage other students, to see their research and to encourage" their love for science.

He began researching his project last year as a sophomore. He hopes to continue working on it next year as a senior. The topic is so important that "there could be undergraduate research opportunities" down the road for him.

And thanks to the subject matter, Heckart -- along with freshman Olivia Irwin -- will represent Seneca as they present their research at the 2013 Missouri Academy of Science Meeting later this month.

"It's quite the honor," Heckart said.

The students' science teacher, Jerry Day, said he was extremely proud of them both.

They went "way beyond my expectations," he said.

Researching their respective topics is hard enough. Even more difficult is to fully understand it. What takes it to a new level, Day said, "is to present it and explain it so everybody can understand it. That's the (most difficult) thing to me."