Science fair concludes with day of judging


Alachua Region Science and Engineering Fair judge Dr. Karin Polifko talks with participant Matthew Berceli, 12, a sixth grader at Kanapaha Middle School, during the fair at Santa Fe College Wednesday, February 13, 2013. At left center is participant Zosia Caes, 13, a seventh grader at Lincoln Middle School.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 at 6:08 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 at 6:08 p.m.

It's a simple exchange. Zain Kabeer speaks, Dr. Clay Smith listens.

Standing there on a plastic blue tarp in Santa Fe College's gymnasium, and surrounded by fold-up basketball hoops and victory banners, they look like two colleagues, not a high school sophomore and University of Florida professor.

"We're doing two things here," Zain starts, directing Smith to the left-hand corner of the poster board. "One, we're producing enough food for someone for an entire year. Or, two, we're producing 21.6 gallons of ethanol for fuel."

The 16-year-old pauses and turns to the professor.

"I would rather feed a person for a year."

Then he stops and smooths his suit jacket, waiting for a reaction.

Smith, 50, meets Zain's stare. He looks eager to break out a smile, or a slap on the back. Instead, he maintains his cool demeanor and cocks his head toward the board.

It's a silent go-on gesture, and Zain picks up the cue and continues. This is his third judge today.

On Wednesday, Zain and about 250 middle and high school students presented science projects at the Alachua Region Science and Engineering Fair. It was a two-day fair, with judging taking place on Wednesday. Results, however, won't be known until Tuesday.

Some of the science projects took months to conduct in local labs and research centers.

Spread across 10 tables, the young scientists performed experiments in microbiology, medicine and health, botany and physics and mathematics.

At Table 1, Zain made his stand. He's been working on his project — "Biofuels Production From Anaerobic Digestion of Plant Biomass," which involves finding cheaper, alternative biofuels and maximizing energy use — since mid-November and hopes to advance to the state competition like he did two years ago.

"It's a good project," he said. "If my presentation's good, I think it'll go to state."

But he's not the only young scientist pining for success.

On the other side of the room, his twin brother, Aman Kabeer (also in a suit), is stationed at the far end of Table 8. Both Aman and Zain are students at Oak Hall School.

Aman is in the middle of speaking with his fourth judge, Kathleen Shiverick, a recently retired UF professor.

"Now, I have a question," Aman said. "Would you like me to go extremely in-depth into the project, or should I streamline it to you?"

His project, "Oligonucleotide Ligation Assay for SNP Detection for Colorectal Cancer Risk Assessment," is drenched in medical jargon and explores which nucleotides — when present — are most responsible for colon cancer.

Shiverick laughs. A stream of light reflects off her gold watch before she answers.

"Streamlined, please."

Aman breaks into speech immediately, and the words flow, like a smooth river.

This year, the twins could both advance to the state competition. They're in different categories (Zain in botany; Aman in medicine and health). They have distinct, innovative ideas. And, although they're reticent about admitting it, there's also "a little bit of a competition," Aman said.

In the past, they've competed together in Latin and mathematics at the state level. But a brother-and-brother science fair showing would be their first.

"We'll see what happens," Zain said. He smiles, then crosses his leg and leans on the table.

Smith finished questioning him a few minutes ago. The professor suggested he create a bar graph to visually enhance the findings. He finally dropped a compliment.

"Hey, that's fantastic."

Then he offered a handshake.

"I appreciate you taking me through your project."

Now, Zain's making small-talk with Joseph Hastings, a 15-year-old from Loften High.

"Do you do Mu Alpha Theta?" Zain asked.

Joseph shakes his head no.

"Loften doesn't have that. Math's my thing, too."

"That's too bad," Zain replied. "You should see if you can join a team at another high school."

With the intensity of soldiers, they discuss calculus, algebra, the odds of their projects making state or going international.

Their conversation trails off, and Zain sighs. The chatter of every student talking at once echoes off the gymnasium walls. They have to wait until Tuesday for results, and he's anxious.

Across the room, Aman is the only student standing in his row.

Then Zain lights up at the thought of an idea.

"Well, if science fair doesn't work, we're going to State Latin at least," he said.

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