Merrimack students place at Ariz. science fair

MERRIMACK – It’s not every day you win the right have your name attached to a couple of asteroids, but two local high school students who did well at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Arizona not only won the naming rights, they collected a $1,500 prize to boot.

Matt Spettel, 18, and Sara Mason, 17, from Merrimack, were among four local students who competed at the fair against thousands of students from around the world.

Spettel and Mason placed second in the Embedded Systems category for their project "The Applications of Peristaltic Pumping Systems in Chemistry Laboratories."

"It was Merrimack’s first time going to the science fair. It was really cool to see students from 77 other countries and the students’ research," Mason said.

Four students from the state traveled together to the fair in Phoenix earlier this month, including Nashua High School South junior Mary Zhu and Phillips Exeter Academy student Shaan Bhandarkar.

Zhu placed second in her category, Behavioral & Social Sciences, with her project: "Food for Thought: A Novel Modeling Approach to Federal Nutrition Policymaking."

"It was truly an incredibly humbling experience to present in a room full of the most brilliant high school researchers around the world," Zhu said in an email last week. "Despite the innumerable cultural differences between all the finalists, who were from over 77 countries, we were all united with a common purpose – to explore, to innovate and to contribute to global scientific progress. The Intel ISEF definitely proved that when it comes to creativity, perseverance, and passion, age is really nothing but a number," she said.

Zhu placed second for her project, winning $1,500. While Bhandarkar didn’t place, as a freshman, he has three more years to try again.

Spettel and Mason presented the "Chemicube," which was prompted by an AP Chemistry assignment Spettel began in his junior year. He asked his chemistry teacher, Sean Muller, for ideas on how to save time in the classroom, which led to his original design of a pumping system to help measure solutions. "By the end of the summer I had a really accurate pump, and that’s when Sara came on board," Spettel said.

"I’m a big fan of chemistry, and I wanted to test it. I wanted to see how accurate it was," Mason said. The two tested the Chemicube and said the accuracy now comes within 0.0047 of a millimeter.

While there are existing pumps that perform the same task, this one takes it a step further. "There are pumps out there that will do 10 milliliters at a set rate, but the students have to measure it out – and with the encoder system, we’re the first people to pump out a designated volume," Mason said.

Muller, the Merrimack chemistry teacher who chaperoned the trip to Arizona, said the Chemicube would be a useful timesaver.

"You still have to teach students how to measure, but once you do, it will cut a lot of time out of the class … it will make it faster and more accurate, and it would also reduce a lot of waste," he said, adding the new process decreases the chance of students being exposed to solutions. Muller said he plans to have two Chemicubes in his classroom next year.

Keeping high school labs in mind, Spettel said existing pumps cost thousands, making them difficult to afford.

Still fine-tuning the device, the two have waited on filing a patent, although the Chemicube is registered as a New Hampshire business.

Because it was the first time Merrimack had attended the event, Mason, Spettel and Muller had to navigate a complicated preparation process – something they are determined to spare future finalists by creating a "how to" video.

Mason and Spettel said the week spent in Arizona was filled with hosting seminars, talks with Nobel laureates and checking out other students’ work.

"It’s the best of the best in the entire world, so just being there is an accomplishment, and to get an award is a great honor," Muller said.

Muller was a finalist in the science fair in 1989, and said some of his former chaperones were on the shuttle bus that picked up the New Hampshire group when they arrived. Competing more than 25 years ago, Muller recalled his project, which involved identifying a star’s spectral class using off-the-shelf photography equipment.

As for the asteroids that will be named after Mason and Spettel, an international committee will determine which ones will bear their names, taking care to choose celestial bodies that will never impact with Earth.

"It’s nice to see New Hampshire students be represented on an international stage," Muller said. "In order to continue this, the Science and Engineering Expo is always looking for businesses to sponsor and support students," he said. Even students who qualify may not be able to travel to the fair without funding, especially since policy bars parents from stepping in and paying travel fees.

Moving forward, Spettel and another Merrimack student, Emily Duval, will be taking the Chemicube on the road again next week at the UNH BizGen competition. "It’s a lot like ‘Shark Tank,’?" he said.

For a more information about winning projects and the fair, see www.societyforscience.org/content/press-room/intel-isef-2016-grand-award-winners.

Tina Forbes can be reached at 594-6402, tforbes@nashuatelegraph.com or @Telegraph_ TinaF.