Aaron Solomon describes himself as “a nerd, born and bred” — a characteristic that has served the 18-year-old Eleanor Roosevelt High School student well, he said, as he now has a shot at becoming $75,000 richer.
Solomon and classmate Neelanjan “Neel” Lakshman, 18, were the first and second grand prize winners, respectively, in the Prince George’s Area Science Fair last month.
The top three individual winners and the top team project winner earn the opportunity to participate in the INTEL International Science and Engineering Fair May 12 through May 17 in Phoenix. The Greenbelt duo will be the only two students from the county attending.
The third individual winner was from St. Mary’s County. Students from Calvert County won best group project in the regional fair.
Maryland has 22 students scheduled to participate in the international science fair, said Sarah Woods, a spokeswoman for the Society for Science and the Public, which organizes the event.
“I am super excited. I would say this is like a dream come true for me,” Lakshman said.
Solomon and Lakshman, as top placers in the regional science fair, will compete against about 1,600 other high school students from around the world for more than $3 million in scholarships and grants.
The highest prize is $75,000 for the Best in Category project, followed by two $50,000 prizes for the runners-up. Numerous other cash and scholarship prizes also are awarded.
Solomon said he is excited and nervous about the INTEL science fair.
“When you get to this level, you are dealing with judges who are more experienced in their field. But, simultaneously, it is a wonderful experience, a wonderful opportunity,” Solomon said.
The teens’ science fair projects came from their research practicum — a requirement of seniors in Roosevelt’s Science and Technology program.
Solomon interned at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, where he performed experiments looking at the nitrogen release of polymer-coated fertilizers — those coated with a combination of chemicals linked in molecular chains.
Solomon said most fertilizers used today release large amounts of nitrogen compounds into the atmosphere that often are cited as contributing to global warming. But his experiment demonstrated that polymer-coated fertilizers release less nitrogen into the atmosphere and trap more in the soil for plants to use.
“He operated in the lab as a grad student, basically, and a good grad student at that, in terms of his intelligence, his curiosity, his independence, his ability to work with other people,” said Michel Cavigelli, research soil scientist at the Beltsville research center, who added that Solomon worked on his project with minimal assistance.
Solomon said he will attend the University of Maryland, College Park, this fall on a full scholarship. He plans to major in cell biology and molecular genetics.
Lakshman’s experiment involved comparing mice with a special mutation that mimics protein inhibitors that occur in cancer treatments and those of normal mice with a healthy immune system.
“I chose my subject because I have an interest in immunology, and I felt I didn’t learn enough in high school about that. Immunology is an important aspect of the medical field,” said Lakshman, who will attend Washington University in St. Louis in the fall, majoring in biomedical engineering and pre-medicine.
The school system pays for travel and accommodations for the winning students, said Jennifer Massagli, ERHS science teacher and student chaperone for the science fair.
“I have to remind myself that these are high school students. These are not college students,” Principal Reginald McNeill said. “The work that they’ve done is just amazing. I can’t wait to see what they do in the next five to 10 years.”