MASTERS Finalist Shares Science Fair Tips with Middle-Schoolers

Who better to introduce budding young scientists and engineers to the ins and outs of competing for a blue ribbon at the Broadcom MASTERS than a young scientist who has brought one back from the competition?

That was the purpose of a talk given by 2013 Broadcom MASTERS Science Award winner Keoni Gandall, who this week shared his enthusiasm for science, his project methodology and some tips for creating a winning science fair entry with the eighth-graders at St. Margaret’s Episcopalian School in San Juan Capistrano, Calif.

MASTERS finalist Keoni Gandall gives science fair insights to middle schoolers.
MASTERS finalist Keoni Gandall gives science fair insights to middle schoolers.

The 14-year-old from Huntington Beach, Calif., was fresh off of a weeklong trip to Washington, D.C., where he competed for the Broadcom MASTERS top prize in science among a group of 30 talented finalists from around the country.

Keoni talked about his MASTERS experience and shared his insight into create a winning science project with the students, who are just getting started with their own science and engineering projects.

“Science makes my day more interesting,” said Keoni, whose focus on synthetic biology prompted him to conduct at-home tests of genetic systems in bacteria and to complete an impressive experiment in which he genetically altered halobacteria, a micro-organism that tints salt pink.

So, what’s his secret ingredient for science fair success?

“Passion,” he said.

“It’s a quality that separates a good project from a bad project and a good project from a winning one,” he told an audience of about 100 students.  “If you find a topic that you are passionate about, then the research won’t seem like hard work.”

He stressed that quality research is critical to the success of any science project. “Research should be the most time-consuming part of your project,” he said. “If you don’t do the proper research, the judges will know.”

When it came time to discuss his MASTERS experience, Keoni talked about his trip to Washington and shared photos of meeting President Obama who gave Keoni and his MASTERS colleagues a private tour of the Oval Office.

During a Q&A session, students grilled Keoni on details, such as how he came up with the idea for his project and how he was able to test and measure the results, an important part of the project-based learning process.

Though only a year older than the members of his audience, he suggested that they start studying beyond what the in-school curriculum suggests if they are truly interested in learning more about a particular topic. Keoni reads high-school level Advanced Placement Biology books, last year, took an online course on virology to beef up his knowledge.

When he is not on the science fair lecture circuit – Keoni also recently spoke to students at his alma mater, Talbert Middle School in Huntington Beach – he spends his free time working at a graduate research lab at the University of California, Irvine, where he is manipulating the DNA of yeast to cause specific mutations, and then reproducing those mutations for further refining.

“Eventually, I want to take the system we are using on yeast and put into use for modifying bacteria and viruses,” he said.