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The 2019 Japan Super Science Fair


The SIR department at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA) annually selects a few students to present their research at the Japan Super Science Fair (JSSF). At the Science Fair, these students were given the opportunity to interact and collaborate with like-minded students from around the world to share their research findings. JSSF aims to broaden students’ worldly views while also allowing them to gain insight on scientific issues. Two students, Jodie Meng (‘20) and Zahra Vasi (‘20) were selected to attend the Science Fair in Kyoto, Japan at the Ritsumeikan Junior and Senior High School from November 3, 2019 to November 7, 2019. 

Jodie Meng designed an inhibitor of the Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor protein for the treatment of cancer. This SIR is conducted at IMSA with Dr. Thurmond as her advisor. Last year, she designed the drug, tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs), through the use of computer simulation programs. This year, she is attempting to synthesize the drug with the highest estimated binding affinity to “find stronger and safer drugs than Erlotinib and Gefitinib, two EGFR TKIs commonly used for the chemotherapeutic treatment of lung and pancreatic cancer.” By attending JSSF, Jodie believed that the diversity of subjects and people were very influential toward her way of thinking. She explains, “because we had unique sets of experiences and skills, we pursued different approaches to similar challenges. Seeing the applications of diversity encouraged me to exercise creativity when looking at problems and become familiarized with a variety of perspectives.”

Zahra Vasi conducts her SIR at Northwestern University School of Medicine under the advisory of Dr. Claus-Peter Richter and Dr. Xiaodong Tan. Her SIR investigates the effects of chemotherapy with a drug called Honokiol on the auditory system and whether it is able to prevent hearing loss. To do this, she ran hearing tests on mice and X-ray fluorescence microscopies which allowed them to look at the ear on a cellular and subcellular level. By being exposed to the other students’ research projects, Zahra said that it “opened my eyes to how many different issues are out there, how important those issues are, and also how great it is that people our age are able to tackle some of those issues. It motivated me to want to make an impact in my own field.”

Zahra and Jodie were able to attend this opportunity by being selected by a council of the head of the SIR department, Dr. Dosch, Dr. Smith, and Dr. DeVol. Because only a few students are selected to attend each year, many questions about the application and selection process arise. Dr. Dosch was asked a few questions about the Science Fair that can be found below. The response has been edited for clarity.

How is this opportunity to attend the Japan Super Science Fair presented to the students?

The three of us, Dr. deVol, Dr. Dosch, and Dr. Smith, send out a message via email to all the students that are enrolled in the SIR course, and we look at their work to see if they are eligible, and it is sent as a general post to the entire class.

How can students apply for this opportunity?

When we post the opportunity, it is usually at the beginning of the fall term, and we ask for a small set of materials. We look for students to present their SIR topics that are relevant to this conference. The application consists of us reviewing their abstract, figures, data, a statement about why their SIR should be selected, and of course, they would need a passport.

What is the selection process like- what goes behind selecting the most qualified applicants to attend the science fair?

We look at the quality of their [students’] work. Does the student present a good story, data analysis, and a good conclusion in their research? Diversity in subject matter and diversity in the applicant pool is also taken into consideration. Primarily, it is about the students’ work that makes the final decision.

What criteria do you like to see in students that qualify for this opportunity?

Students who have just started the SIR usually do not have enough research to present. However, all science SIR students are encouraged to apply for the JSSF. Students that research until the summer before senior year usually have enough data to share, so usually the SIR is reserved for students who have devoted time and effort in to their research project. Other than these “conditions”, there are no other restrictions. 

The Japan Super Science Fair allowed these IMSA students to learn about worldwide scientific issues such as drug design through various computer software programs and ways to combat pollution. These students walked out of the Science Fair with new scientific and collaborative insight, which provides young scientists with an enriching experience.

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