By Tiffany Whitfield

On April 9, 2022, more than 200 students from across the Commonwealth participated in the annual Virginia State Science and Engineering Fair (VSSEF). This year, the VSSEF was held virtually at Old Dominion University and was co-sponsored by the College of Sciences and the Batten College of Engineering and Technology. The students who competed in the fair were the winners from 10 regional fairs held throughout Virginia. This culminating competition revealed the astute intensity of the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Competitors showed their prowess through diverse projects ranging from using artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze catalogs of billions of stars to identifying biomarkers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to testing vegetable-based paper fiber. There were projects about new biofuels, new algorithms to trace the spread of fake news or how to identify deepfakes, and some impressive engineering projects with patents now pending.

"This was first state fair in three years where students got to interact with directly with the judges. For some, this was their one opportunity this year to interact directly with a scientist or engineer in a field they are passionate about," said Gabriel Franke, ODU fair director. "Together, we made a memorable event."

Due to COVID-19 safety protocols students could not gather on-campus at ODU for competition. However, with a team of 70 ODU faculty, students, and community members along with a student contest web platform, zFairs, the competition was a success.

"If there is anything I have learned from countless outreach events and demo shows over the years is that the best way to disprove physics is to try and show it off," said Justin Mason, director of the Michael and Kimthanh LĂȘ Planetarium and manager of ODU's VSSEF. "Our science minded students across Virginia proved me wrong with their brilliant projects at this year's Virginia State Science and Engineering Fair. It is events like this that helped inspire my own love of science, and this is an opportunity to provide young students the chance to show off their own scientific research."

There were 175 projects in 16 categories that were judged for first, second, and third places and honorable mention. Three of the first-place winners were selected as grand prize winners and will attend the International Science and Engineering Fair which will held in Atlanta, GA May 7- 13, 2022. The grand prize winners are as follows:

Grand Prize Winners:

Tony Bright, Hamza Lateef and Gabriel Ralston represented the Prince William-Manassas Regional Fair. Their research project was "Concussion Recovery in Youth

Optimized using a Comprehensive App-based Program (CRYO CAP)" in the category of Biomedical and Health Sciences.

Suraj Vaddi represented the Fairfax Regional Fair. Vaddi's research project was "Tar Print: Novel Convolutional Remote Sensing Techniques to Quantify Urbanization and Study Water Quality" in the category of Earth Environmental Sciences.

Omar Abul-Hassan represented the Tidewater Regional Fair. Abul-Hassan's research project was "A Helmholtzian Deep Learning Approach to Glomeruli Segmentation using Energy-based Models" in the category of Computational Biology, Bioinformatics, and Translational Medical.

Hamza Arman Lateef, one of the grand prize winners from the Prince William-Manassas regional fair said, "our project combined the disciplines of biological research, biomedical engineering, and mobile app development to innovate a treatment for concussions. Our device is called CRYO CAP (Concussion Recovery in Youth Optimized using a Comprehensive App-based Program). It took us a year to get this done and we are extremely grateful to our mentor, Mr. Ben Chouikha, at the Governor's School at Innovation Park."

Judges put in a lot of manpower to select winners. "I was incredibly impressed with the rigor and creativity of the projects at VSSEF this year," said Emily Hardy, Ph.D., ODU Chemistry and Biochemistry lecturer. "It was great to be a part of and to see ODU faculty and graduate student judges engage, discuss future work potential, and learn from these students who embody the wonder and curiosity that made so many of us choose science for our careers in the first place."

Hundreds of hours of attention and dedication were put into each project. Judges were able to do virtual interviews with the competitors on Saturday, April 9, 2022. Total scoring rubrics submitted were 633 and these were the individual scores submitted by judges for projects. The most active judges were:

Frank Turner, technical director at Space Development Agency scored 27 projects.

Emily Hardy, Ph.D., ODU Chemistry and Biochemistry lecturer, scored 23 projects

Wade Fritzeen, University of Virginia Civil in Engineering doctoral student, scored 22 projects.

Morgan Daniels, ODU Chemistry doctoral student, scored 18 projects.

One of the competitors raved about her overall experience. "I really enjoyed conducting my research this year - I looked at the effect of disrupted sleep and circadian rhythms on health using flies," said Rania Lateef, a participant in the animal sciences division from Charles J Colgan High School . "It took me a while to learn how to use flies but I was able to finish my research after several months. I'm very grateful to my AP biology teacher, Mrs. Brown, for teaching me how to analyze my data. I'm also thankful to Mrs. Pawlik, who supported all the science fair participants at my school. Thank you to VSSEF for hosting the fair!"

"It was exciting to bring VSSEF back to ODU and a rewarding experience to help inspire the next generation of scientist and engineers," said Mason.

"I am very grateful to the ODU team particularly to Justin Mason and Lesley Greene, who were critical in carrying out the fair and to all of the judges who tirelessly interviewed and scored all of the projects, and to the students who persevered through any technical difficulties," said Franke. Lesley Greene, associate dean for the College of Sciences headed the VSSEF's Scientific Review Committee.

To see the list of winners, click here. ODU will host the VSSEF for the next two years and look forward to when buzzing minds can gather in-person on campus for next year's competition.