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Real Science

The Mother Seton School Science Fair

Michael Rosenthal

(4/2016) I just attended the Mother Seton School Science Fair for the second time (I wrote about the Science Fair in this column last year). The Fair was every bit as impressive to me as it was last year. I counted 109 student presentations, created by students who run mostly from 5th grade to 8th grade, and including a few students from third and fourth grades.

The format is very professional: For each presentation there is a three section presentation board that outlines the experiment, which defines the question being studied, the hypothesis that is being considered, the procedure being used to investigate the question, the materials utilized in the study, and the conclusions reached. This is no different than the methodology used by a PhD student! In most cases there is also a notebook that records the experimental results as they were uncovered and frequently materials used in the study. Just as last year, I was amazed at the sophistication of the work for students of that age.

This year however I was able to get some additional insights, meeting with the Science Fair Coordinator, Ed Hatter, and the Chief Student Mentor, Danielle Kuykendall, who were gracious enough to spend time with me in conversation while I observed the presentations. Both were devoted to the cause of assisting these students to discover their interests and talents, and I applaud them for their commitment and patience.

The topics are interesting, varied, relevant and creative. Here are some of those that caught my eye:

  • Which Drink Stains Your Teeth Worst?
  • How Can I Tell If You Are Lying?
  • Which Commercial Yogurt Has The Most Live Cultures?
  • Do Violent Video Games Decrease Your Blood Pressure?
  • Does Grooming Affect A Horseís Heart Rate?
  • Does the Shape Of An Ice Cube Affect How Quickly It Melts?
  • Does Music Choice Affect The Heart Rate?
  • Which Provides More Electrolyte? Sports Drinks or Orange Juice?
  • Can Crickets Tell The Temperature?
  • Lead Levels and The Soil.
  • Does Sugar Increase Energy?

The topic that really caught my attention, however, was the first topic I noticed: Male Versus Female Scientists. Are Female Scientists Recognized As Well as Male Scientists?

After fifty years or so in educating prospective scientists in small colleges, I have had many experiences that reflect on this topic.

I spent my years of graduate education in chemistry at The University of Illinois in a chemistry department that was one of the largest and most prestigious in the country. I mentioned in an earlier article that there were no female faculty members in the chemistry department; only the Chemistry Librarian was a woman. There were some women graduate students, maybe 15 percent of the students, and they were generally treated well and completed their degrees as well as the men. But I remember thinking that it must be rather lonely for them, because I saw a larger number of science capable women studying chemistry in my small college undergraduate years.

After I completed my PhD in the mid-1960s, I and my family went off to New York State to Bard College, a small liberal arts and sciences college with a strong science program, and with many female students studying science. Women were given a very hard time being accepted to medical school and especially to veterinary school (where women now dominate the profession!), especially in acceptance interviews. I will never forget the female student who was told on her medical school interview that "you better not come to medical school and decide to drop out to have babies and thus waste a space in your class." Prejudice against women was rampant in the sciences in this period, and few women were recognized as educational leaders.

Happily, to a great extent this has changed. Women now dominate the veterinary profession, women physicians practice equally with their male counterparts, and there are many women who have become college and university presidents. The American Chemical Society has had two women presidents!

The empowerment of all students to become scientists, physicians, and those in professions that have a scientific research basis is enormously supported by an early start in the world of science, of which the Mother Seton Science Fair is an outstanding example. If I had received the kind of encouragement in lower grades that Mother Seton offers their students, I would have made the decision to become a scientist much sooner than my senior year in high school, and I would have developed my scientific interests and skills much sooner.

Iím sure readers have noticed the almost daily stories on lead contamination in drinking water, fueled by the story on Flint, Michigan, about which I wrote in my last Real Science article. The Washington Post reports that Dr. Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who has been the leading voice in this issue, told a congressional panel that the District of Columbiaís drinking water was at one time "20 to 30 times worse" than the Flint, Michigan drinking water. Other drinking water lead level reports have been coming out as well, and it appears that the problem is much more widespread than was first thought. A USA Today report based on analysis of data from The Environmental Protection Agency found that 20 percent of US water systems tested had lead levels above the EPAís "action level" of 15 parts per billion.

Iíve mentioned briefly in earlier articles about the attempts to sell and to encourage the use of a wide range of vitamins that claim to improve every aspect of a personís health. There are even stores, as Iím sure you know, dedicated to the sale of vitamins. For several years, at the advice of my druggist, I took an off-the-shelf multivitamin daily. The cost was modest, and there were no health dangers of which I was aware.

When I changed physicians a few years ago, I asked him about taking a multivitamin daily, and he said not to waste my money, that it was not dangerous, but was unnecessary. On the basis of blood tests, he urged me to take only Vitamin D3. A book was published last year on this subject, "Vitamania", by Catherine Price (Penguin Press). One point that arises is that it is very hard to become vitamin deficient in the United States at this time.

She points out that a large percentage of our foods are vitamin fortified (with the vitamins often manufactured in China!). There is little scientific evidence that flooding yourself with vitamin supplements does you any good at all; and, an amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in 1976 prohibits the FDA from regulating vitamins as drugs! So, as Iíve said before, be cautionary when you see the statement, "This product has not been evaluated by The Food and Drug Administration."

Michael is former chemistry professor at Mount. St. Marys

Read other articles by Michael Rosenthal