Students compete in finals for U.S. science honor

By M.V. Moorhead

If someone tries to sell you, as the song says, some oceanfront property in Arizona, think twice about the deal. If, however, someone tells you that a breakthrough in coral conservation originated here in the landlocked Kyrene Corridor, it may not be a put-on.

Corona del Sol High school students Kevan Christensen and Vinayak Muralidhar competed last weekend in the Western Regional Finals of the Siemens Westinghouse Competition in Math, Science and Technology at the University of California at Berkeley.

Essentially, the event is a big, prestigious, major-league science fair, the winners of which move on to compete for a $100,000 grand prize in the national finals in Washington, D.C.

Shortly before heading to Berkeley, Christensen and Muralidhar did their best to render their project, which involves “coral bleaching,” into terms that I could grasp:

WN: Explain, in layman's terms, the hypothesis you're working on.

VM: Coral bleaching is what happens when coral reefs are damaged by increased sea temperatures and expel the algae that live within them, thus losing their color. Our project's aim is basically to track coral bleaching events quantitatively by sampling coral specimens at various intervals while they are bleaching, and then analyze these samples by calculating the chlorophyll concentration of the tissue. The hypothesis is that coral health can effectively be measured quantitatively in this way and the data compiled into a Coral Bleaching Index that can have a variety of powerful applications.

WN: How do two guys from Arizona get interested in coral bleaching?

KC: In freshman year of high school, we both had a biology teacher who encouraged us to learn how to read scientific articles, and we stumbled across this topic, which seemed like a very interesting environmental issue. It just so happened that I went snorkeling on a family trip about the same time and saw both how amazing coral reefs are up close and also the damaging effects of coral bleaching.

VM: His dad also had a few aquariums, and was thus even more familiar with the process and knew its devastating effects on an ecosystem.

WN: What would be the application of your theory?

KC: We hope that it will be useful in finding corals that are particularly vulnerable or hardy to coral bleaching so scientists can focus research on the traits and characteristics that make them that way. The Coral Bleaching Index could also have use in reef management and in predicting coral reef damage after bleaching events. Additionally, if more data were included in future studies, it could be used to predict which corals can recover from bleaching and how long it will take.

VM: To illustrate with an example, consider that in a certain area in the Caribbean, for example, researchers have measured a temperature anomaly of 4 degrees Celsius for a period of 3 days. Then, using data that was assembled in the lab using our methods, scientists could determine with great accuracy the extent of bleaching in the corals underwater without having to send divers or probes down, saving time, money, and resources.

WN: What colleges do you plan to attend?

VM: I would like to attend a college such as Princeton, Stanford, Yale, or the University of California.

KC: Since I'm only a junior I've actually just begun my college searches so I'm unsure at the moment where I'd like to go.

WN: What are your long-term career ambitions?

KC: I am also relatively undecided in terms of careers. I think I might like researching in this type of field or even pursuing a career such as environmental law.

VM: I plan on studying either mathematics or engineering in college and perhaps become a professor of one of these subjects so that I may continue research even in my later years. I have a passion for science, and so I think any job I choose will incorporate research and science into it.

WN: Do you know anything about the competition you'll be facing?

KC: We know the titles of some of the projects we'll be up against, but not much more. The Siemens Westinghouse Foundation runs an extremely competitive event, so there's no doubt that the competition will be of extremely high caliber.

VM: All in all, I think it's a really good thing that the Siemens Corporation is paying for. Science needs to be more motivated among young adults and this competition does just that.