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How I got a planet named after me: An Ellis School student's science win

We were sitting at the dinner table and my newfound friend, Cameron, and I were staring skeptically at the plate of calamari in front of us. We looked up when the activities director, Allie Hewlett, called us to attention.

"We have good news, and bad news," she said, and paused when all the kids groaned at mention of bad news. "The bad news is that this doesn't apply to the parents." This time it was the parents' turn to groan, and groan they did. "The good news…" she turned towards us, "Is that President Obama will be seeing you tomorrow."

The room was in an uproar, people shrieking, screaming, and swooning. I stared in a daze at the plate of calamari, and then it hit me. The President, tomorrow, me. I joined in the shrieking. People in the restaurant were amazed, Who must these kids be? Meeting the President…

When I started thinking about my science project  the summer before seventh grade, I had no idea that I was going to win a competition, let alone meet the President. My family always goes down to the beach for vacation, but this time we wanted to try something a bit different. On the way home, we decided to go visit a mine, Emerald Village, in North Carolina.

I have always been a rock geek, stealing gravel pieces from my neighbor's driveway and buying small minerals at the museum. This was the perfect vacation for me, and I was excited beyond belief. Once we arrived, my mom suggested signing up for a "Blacklight" tour of the mine. Both my dad and I agreed, and we were off.

The tour itself was amazing, the rock wall glowing many different colors, but the owners of the mine were mystified because one small area of it fluoresced blue, rather than the expected pink, orange, or green. I was curious about why the mineral fluoresced differently. Was it the same material? If so, than what made it fluoresce differently?

I was wondering about how I was going to accomplish this project, and I decided that a scanning electron microscope equipped with energy dispersive spectroscopy (SEM/EDS) could identify the elements in a sample, and therefore answer my question. My mom was finishing her PhD in chemistry at Duquesne University, and I noticed that a lot of her research group used the SEM for similar purposes. I presented my project to Dr. Jennifer Aitken, and she approved it. 

After getting the proper safety training to use the SEM, I ran the samples myself. I found out that the elements Molybdenum and Tungsten made the unknown sample fluoresce blue. I was very excited about my results, and couldn't wait to present my work.

My project won many awards at the regional and state PJAS competitions, and at the Pittsburgh Regional Science and Engineering Fair (PRSEF). I was nominated to the Broadcom MASTERS competition. Only the top 10% of science fair participants in the nation are nominated into this program. The application consisted of 15 essays, and was very challenging. I was so excited to hear that I was chosen as one of the top 300 semifinalists, and a few days later, as one of the top 30 finalists in the nation.

I received an all-expenses paid trip to D.C. to compete with the other 29 finalists. The week that I was there was comprised of many group challenges. The challenges were fun but difficult, and everyone in the group worked together very well. We also presented our projects individually to three judges and to the public.

Welcome to the White House
I will never forget the experience of meeting President Obama. The group made its way to the White House and waited in the rose garden for the President to arrive. He was running late because he was meeting with the prime minister of Israel. He came out of a set of doors behind us, and we were all staring in amazement; it was actually him.

He shook hands with everyone there and asked us our names, and where we came from. When he found out that I was from Pittsburgh, he started a conversation about the Steelers. He joked around a bit, laughing when a boy said he broke his arm during a soccer game, "I thought you didn't use your hands when playing soccer," he replied.  We took pictures, and then President Obama did something completely unexpected.

He led us towards the White House, "Now, whenever you hear 'President', you think 'Oval Office', so let's go take a look at it." He gave us a personal tour of the Oval Office, even pausing to answer questions at the end.

Though I didn't win a major award at the ceremony, I still treasure the experience. Pittsburgh was the only city to have two finalists, and Mihir Garimella (my fellow Pittsburgher) won an award for the best use of technology. His project focused on digitally recreating scents.

Minor planets were named after each of the finalists. Mine, Emmaburnett, is somewhere up in the sky with Alberteinstein. We also received a $500 gift card, a $500 check, and a Raspberry Pi programming computer.

This experience was life changing, not only because of meeting the President and getting lots of cool stuff, but because I met kids who shared the same passion for science. Many kids don't see science the way I do, as gateway to the world, but rather as another boring school subject.  The 30 Broadcom MASTERS finalists are working to change that, showing their passion for their work, and showing other kids that they can do it too. I made some lifelong friends on this trip, and had an adventure in which I will never forget.
Emma Burnett is an eighth grade student at The Ellis School.
Photos copyright Brian Cohen.
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