Local Students Shine Under International Spotlight

This year, South Florida is represented by four students from Miami-Dade and five from Broward county.

By Ari Odzer
|  Thursday, May 16, 2013  |  Updated 5:46 PM EDT
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Local Students Shine Under International Spotlight

Ari Odzer

The Miami-Dade and Broward ISEF students.

Walk into the cavernous room at the Phoenix Convention Center and you are immediately overwhelmed by science. Row upon row of high school students displaying their research in a myriad of areas, from engineering and chemistry to medicine and environmental management, 17 categories in all.

Welcome to the annual Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, known as ISEF.

"It's kind of like the Olympics of science fairs," said Ashwin Bhat of Ferguson High School in Kendall, who did his research on finding better materials from which to make vascular stents.

This year, South Florida is represented by four students from Miami-Dade and five from Broward County. There are more than 1,600 students at ISEF, and they come from every state and more than 70 countries. It's an unparalleled display of scientific brilliance for pre-collegiate students.

"Everything is done on such a big scale, so many projects," said Shiva Kangayan of Archimedean Conservatory School in Miami, whose project aims to help cystic fibrosis patients combat a common infection that can be life-threatening.

ISEF immerses these students in the scientific world. They meet Nobel laureates, entrepreneurs who use their knowledge of science to create businesses, and other luminaries who inspire them to keep working and dreaming and thinking.

"I just met an astronaut." said Yenny Dieguez of Jose Marti MAST Academy in Hialeah. "It's very inspirational, meeting people who have done great things in their fields." Dieguez did her project on using schools of fish to create better wind turbine designs.

Miguel Parades of American Heritage School in Plantation is at ISEF for the second time, after winning the grand award at the Florida State Science Fair two years in a row. He did research on Alzheimer's Disease.

"I appreciate it so much more, I'm taking the time to enjoy everything," Parades said.

Jamie Odzer of Michael Krop High School in Northeast Miami-Dade is at ISEF for the third straight year. She did her research on Everglades restoration.

"It's an amazing experience to be here because you meet people from different backgrounds and cultures who all share a passion for science," Odzer said.

That's a common theme among the students here.

"The best thing is getting to meet all the scientific minds from from around the world," said Kiona Elliott of Northeast High School in Oakland Park.

"Meeting the foreign kids is the most fun," agrees Preksha Bhagchandani of Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale.

There's no question, the ISEF experience is an eye-opener, even for these students, who all competed and won prizes at their state science fairs just to get this far.

"I'm shocked by everything, I've seen things that I didn't think were possible for students to do," said Mikala Cohen of Cypress Bay High School in Weston.

"You can see so many innovations here, it's amazing," says Rachel Sereix of University School in Davie.

ISEF finalists, as all the competitors here are called, are eligible to win thousands of dollars in prize money and scholarships. They are judged by professionals in their fields. The awards presentations are done on Thursday night and Friday morning.

In this case, the cliche is true: all the students are winners just for being here.

"I come here every year and my faith in humanity is restored," said Wendy Hawkins, the executive director of the Intel Foundation, which sponsors the fair. "All the problems my generation created, like global climate change, water shortages, energy shortages, these kids are going to figure it all out and fix it."

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