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Charlottesville-area students dominate Virginia Piedmont Regional Science Fair

The 44th annual Virginia Piedmont Regional Science Fair has come and gone, and the results are in.

Charlottesville-area students dominated the categories, taking home two-thirds of all first-place prizes. Charlottesville Catholic School students took home 11 of the 31 total first-place prizes, while Albemarle High School students won 10.

One of the fair’s two grand winners also hails from the area.

Vidya Ambati, a junior at Albemarle High School, as well as Tamara Otten, a junior from Mountain Vista Governor’s School in Warrenton, were named the contest’s grand winners this past Saturday at the University of Virginia’s North Fork Discovery Park outside Charlottesville.

Ambati’s project, submitted in the medicine and health sciences category, was titled “Recasting an Anti-Psychotic As a Prevention for Multiple Arthritides: Discovery of a Novel Receptor and Mechanism of Action.” Otten competed in the computer science category with a project titled “Real or Fake? Using Artificial Intelligence to Detect Filtered Images.”

As the grand winners, the pair will next head to Los Angeles, where they will represent the region in the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair. A weeklong event planned for later this May, the Regeneron fair is the world’s largest precollege STEM — or science, technology, engineering and mathematics — competition.

The Piedmont fair’s two runner-ups are both juniors at Albemarle High School. First runner-up Sean Fu’s project was titled “Generative AI-assisted Drug Identification and Cell Engineering to Suppress Medulloblastoma Cell Proliferation.” Second runner-up Suah Kwon’s project was titled “Development of an Efficient and Recyclable Method of Recovering Rare Earth Elements from Industrial Waste.”

“We had a great mix of projects,” Adrian Felts, the fair’s director, told The Daily Progress, “that really highlighted the innovative ideas of the young people in our region.”

The fair also had a strong mix of judges this year, thanks to a record-breaking number of applicants.

While the event usually has roughly 90 to 100 volunteers, it received roughly 130 applications this year, according to Felts.

“A broad mix of nearly 120 local judges from UVa, various government agencies and several local technology companies volunteered to interview and select the winners,” Felts said.

Outside of the grand winners, first-, second- and third-place winners were named in each of the 17 categories, a list that includes animal sciences, earth and planetary science and energy and transportation.

The first-place winners of the senior division, ninth- to 12th-graders, will automatically advance to the Virginia State Science and Engineering Fair held on April 13 at Old Dominion University in Norfolk. The top winners in the junior division, sixth- to eighth-graders, will move on to an online submission process for the Thermo Fisher Scientific Junior Innovators Challenge. If selected, they will attend a project showcase held in October in Washington, D.C.

Judges also awarded 31 special prizes, some of which were sponsored by various organizations, such as the American Psychological Association, Booz Allen, the National Ground Intelligence Center and the Charlottesville Astronomical Society.

There were a few particularly unique awards among the special awards such as the “Why Didn’t I Think Of That? Award” won by King George Middle School eighth-grader Corbin Gunther and his project titled “Acoustic Levitator.” Lakeside Middle School’s Micah Appiah was awarded the “Next Thomas Edison Award” for creating “a 3D printed robotic prosthetic hand with added reflexes.”

Some of those special award winners also won cash prizes. The four top winners of the “Serving Society through Science Award” received $650 in total. The senior winner of the “Virginia Lakes & Watersheds Award,” Marshall Howard of Mountain Vista Governor’s School, took home $100. The junior winner, Madeline Thomas of Donald B. Dixon-Lyle R. Smith Middle School, won $50.

More than 140 students from public, private, independent and home schools in Albemarle, Culpeper, Fauquier, Fluvanna, Green, King George, Louisa, Madison, Nelson, Orange, Rappahannock, Spotsylvania and Stafford counties and the city of Charlottesville participated in this year’s Virginia Piedmont Regional Science Fair.


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