May 21, 2019

‘Science Fair’ Celebrates Beautiful Minds

From left: Harsha Paladugu, Abraham Riedel-Mishaan, Ryan Folk Photo courtesy of Nat. Geographic Documentary Films

Every year, 1,700 of the best and brightest high school students from 80 countries compete in the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). At stake is a $75,000 top prize and recognition that has the potential to make a difference in their lives, and just may change the world. This battle of the brains is the subject of the documentary “Science Fair,” which follows students as they prepare their entries for the competition. 

Co-directed by Darren Foster and Cristina Costantini, who competed twice at ISEF, the film was voted Festival Favorite at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and on had its premiere on the National Geographic Channel September 14th. 

The film follows a diverse group of subjects, among them a pair of teens from a poor community in Brazil who have indentified a protein that could inhibit the spread of the Zika virus; two entrants from the science-focused duPont Manual High School in Louisville, Ky.; and a South Dakota teen from a school that breathes football and has no science program. It also follows a science teacher from Jericho, N.Y., who has had nine students who qualified for ISEF in 2017.

“The film follows a diverse group of subjects, among them a pair of teens from a poor community in Brazil who have indentified a protein that could inhibit the spread of the Zika virus.”

At duPont Manual, the filmmakers selected Anjali Chadha, who built a device that detects arsenic levels in water, and a trio of seniors, Ryan Folz, Harsha Paladugu and Abraham Riedel-Mishaan, inventors of an electronic 3D-printed stethoscope that automatically connects to an online database of heart sounds, making diagnoses easier.  

“They started following us around as we were preparing and practicing presentation,” Riedel-Mishaan told the Journal. “I thought ISEF was a fantastic experience. I saw a lot of amazing projects and met incredible people from all over the world, and got to talk about research with them.”

Riedel-Mishaan has always been interested in math, but a summer camp robotics program after his freshman year expanded that to computer science, which he put to use in his project. 

He’s the son of math professors, who emphasized the importance of education. His father is German and his Guatemalan-born Jewish mother has ancestry in France, Spain, Jamaica “and somewhere in the Middle East. I know some of the people on her side were fleeing Nazi Germany,” Riedel-Mishaan said. “Her family was very religious but she wasn’t and I wasn’t raised with it either. But we did celebrate some of the holidays. My mother wanted me to know about the traditions, so if later in life I wanted to get more involved, I at least would have some aspects of a Jewish upbringing.”

Riedel-Mishaan is now a computer science major at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he’s an orientation adviser for the fall class of freshmen. He hasn’t decided whether he’ll become a software engineer or get his doctorate and become a professor like his parents. “I really enjoy the theory of computer science and I’d like to explore that further,” he said.

He considers “Science Fair” “a really great way to tell kids about the amazing things we have out there for young scientists, and let them know you can get involved in research and do amazing work while you’re still in high school.”

He also hopes that “Science Fair” makes people more aware of the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education and the part science fairs can play in that. “It would be great if it can lead to more science programs in schools,” he said.

“Science Fair” opens in theaters on Sept. 21.