Athol High School juniors shine at science fair

(From left) Athol High School science teacher Emily King with juniors Latasha Sheffield and Allison Robertson. King and Robertson were both recognized at the recent Worcester Regional Science and Engineering Fair.

(From left) Athol High School science teacher Emily King with juniors Latasha Sheffield and Allison Robertson. King and Robertson were both recognized at the recent Worcester Regional Science and Engineering Fair. PHOTO BY GREG VINE

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 03-19-2024 5:00 PM

ATHOL – Two Athol High School juniors were recognized at the March 8 Worcester Regional Science and Engineering Fair held at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, each for their own unique talent.

Allison Robertson submitted artwork that was chosen to be featured on the event’s program and T-shirts, while Emily King won honorable mention for her science project, which featured experimentation with planaria, or flatworms. King will represent AHS and the Worcester science fair at the Massachusetts State Science Fair on April 5 at Gillette Stadium. AHS science teacher Latasha Sheffield accompanied the students to the science fair.

In addition, the high school’s science department was recognized by the WPI Dean of Undergraduate Studies and presented with $500 to continue its mission of developing an inquiry-based science and engineering program.

King said her project began during discussions in the high school’s college-level psychology class on how devastating mental illnesses can be, not only on the patients themselves, but also on the people around them.

“Seeing people who were close to my family suffer from mental illness really motivated me to do this experiment to look more at the root causes” King said.

Planaria, King explained, are flatworms that can be found in any local body of water. First, she designed a maze, which the flatworms eventually learned to navigate to find food. She then bisected each worm and gave each portion time to regenerate into two independent planaria.

“Once they regenerated, they were reintroduced to the maze and timed to see how long it took them to go through the maze,” King said. “Sixty-five percent of the planaria improved their prior performance.”

King said she wanted to see if function and memory can be regenerated.

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“Regenerating brain cells has never happened,” she said. “You could regenerate brain cells, but if they don’t work you’re not going to be functioning properly. So, we understood (from the experiment) that it’s a possibility to re-grow brain cells that are fully functioning and have memory, which would slow down the (degenerative) process and give people their life back.”

King said that she will be doing a statistical analysis to determine if the regenerated brain cells might actually more efficient than the originals. She said the motivation for her work came from the death of a family friend from dementia.

“They had a big celebration of life party, and you could see the devastation, but also their love for him,” King said. “It was something that showed that (dementia) impacted not just the one person but a whole community – there were probably over 100 people there. So, it really does have a big effect.”

Asked about her plans after high school, King said she loves environmental science but also has an interest in engineering, and a career in biological engineering may be in her future.

Robertson said that when it came time to sign up for the WRSEF, she had too many other commitments to put together a project. So instead, she decided to enter the competition to design the science fair’s logo.

“I am definitely more right-brained,” she said. “I really am more into creative thinking as opposed to doing statistics and logistics and things like that. So, I decided to enter the competition.”

Robertson said she’ll be starting work on a project for a high school art competition at Mount Wachusett Community College.

“I haven’t quite decided what I’m going to make yet, but I’ll get it figured out,” she added.

In addition, Robertson has entered local competitions, including one sponsored by the North Quabbin Community Coalition. While she enjoys artistic endeavors, Robertson said it’s unlikely to be a career choice.

“It’s just a fun little talent that I have,” she said. “I think I’m more likely to go into the sciences or engineering – more STEM-based things. I just don’t think I can focus on art as my main career.”

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com.