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Jackson R-2 students win top awards at regional science fair

Jackson High School students won several awards at the Southeast Missouri Regional Science Fair last month. Shown above, from left: Samantha Large, Kaden Luker, Bailey O’Neal, JHS teacher Brittany Kelley, Natalee Chimienti, Lily Conrad and Hannah Mitchell. Submitted photo

Jackson High School students were among the top award winners at the 67th Annual Southeast Missouri Regional Science Fair, with JHS seniors Kaden Luker and Bailey O’Neal winning the fair’s top award.

Around 240 sixth through 12th grade students participated in the regional science fair held on March 7 at Southeast Missouri State University’s Show Me Center.

First, second and third place awards were given in each scientific category, separated in junior and senior divisions. In addition, over 30 special awards and scholarships were given out at the regional fair.

The top three senior division exhibits at the regional fair are able to move on to the 2023 Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), held this year from May 13-19 in Dallas, Texas.

Luker’s exhibit on biodegrading microplastics with the bacteria Micrococcus Luteus was awarded as the best senior division project, and O’Neal’s exhibit on the effects of heat damage on DNA collection from teeth was awarded as the second-best senior division project.

Perryville High School’s Erin Holly and Jasmine Muench won the third spot at the international science and engineering fair with their exhibit on the effect natural Bryophyta gardens can have on indoor air quality and health.

Luker, who was able to attend ISEF last year, said he is excited to go back this year, though it was a difficult decision because the international fair is the same week as graduation. He said the greatest part of the fair is being able to talk to people from different parts of the world and learn from them.

“Last year, I met a lot of people who I would have probably never met if I didn’t go,” Luker said. “Since they were from varying cultures and religions from around the world, we were able to exchange ideas and information about things that we would have never thought about before.”

O’Neal said she is not planning on attending the international fair, but was honored to receive the recognition. “I like science, but science has always been one of the harder subjects for me,” O’Neal said. “I’ve always been more of a humanities person, so being able to explore science and being able to be in charge of what I want to do has been really fun for me.”

Both Luker and O’Neal expanded on their projects from last year’s competition, adding additional research done in the past year.

Luker’s winning project focused on the ability to biodegrade microplastics found in water. He said his project aims to find out if there was a relatively cheap way to reduce microplastic pollution in oceans and other bodies of water around the world.

“There’s trillions of pieces of microplastics in our oceans, and since microplastics are fairly small, around six nanometers in size, we can’t really see them,” Luker said. “If the microplastics are in the water, they start to absorb toxins or chemicals like PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) that could cause an organism to develop rashes, inflammation or cancerous growth if they ingest the microplastic.”

For last year’s fair, Luker tested three types of bacteria at different temperatures to see if they degraded microplastics over the course of a month. He found that the bacteria Micrococcus Luteus worked best of the different types of bacteria, and that the process worked best in warmer water.

“Last year’s project was to see if bacteria could actually biodegrade microplastics,” Luker said. “This year’s project tested to see how factors, particularly pH, impacts about degradation on microplastics via the Micrococcus Luteus.”

Luker added the bacteria to water samples with microplastics, adding various pH altering variables like lemon juice and baking soda to test the bacteria in acidic and basic water. He found that the Micrococcus Luteus was more successful biodegrading the microplastics in basic to neutral water.

Luker said he hopes his project could help fight a pollution issue that is not talked about as much as plastic pollution as a whole. He added that microplastics are much harder to remove from water than other plastic products – such as water bottles.

“Microplastics are basically an unseen threat that we have nothing to combat against,” Luker said. “It could cause our resources, particularly the water or the fish that live in it, to become contaminated, and it could cause humans to fight over resources or it could possibly cause humans to fall ill themselves.

Luker added that Micrococcus Luteus bacteria would also be a cheaper solution than enzymes that are currently undergoing scientific research to combat microplastics, and the bacteria may also be a healthier solution as it is already naturally found in water, on human skin and in soil.

O’Neal’s project focused on how easily DNA could be collected on teeth that had undergone heat damage. Last year, she tested how well she could extract DNA from teeth that had been heated at 495 degrees Fahrenheit, 600 degrees Fahrenheit and 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Last year, I found that as temperature goes up, the amount of DNA I was getting went down,” O’Neal said. This year, she decided to test how the length of time the teeth were heated would affect the amount of DNA extracted.

“I wanted to do different amounts of time, because fire response times are very important when you are dealing with forensic odontology,” O’Neal said. “I put teeth in a kiln for anywhere from one to three hours, and then I tested how much DNA I could get from each tooth.”

She added that she thought teeth that were heated for longer periods of time would be harder to extract DNA. “That didn’t actually happen,” O’Neal said. “When I looked at the results, I found that there wasn’t really a correlation between the amount of time and how much DNA was found.”

O’Neal said the results this year may have been influenced by the quality of the teeth, as they were damaged teeth removed by a local dentist.

She said the overall goal of her project was to help forensic odontologist know when they can be useful at a crime scene. O’Neal said she chose this project because she has always been a big fan of forensics and enjoyed Joseph Spurgeon’s forensics class at Jackson Junior High School.

“This was something that I cared about a lot and was interesting to me,” O’Neal said. “I think part of what made my project interesting was that there is not usually a lot of people doing forensic science at science fairs.”

In addition to the ISEF winners, Jackson High School students received many awards at the regional science fair. Luker, O’Neal and Natalee Chimienti all won first place awards and had the best exhibit in their individual categories.

Chimienti, who is a senior at JHS, said her project focused on how high school students learned the best. She gave three groups of students a list of 25 words to be tested on, with some students receiving just the list and others receiving corresponding photos or an audio recording of the words.

“I wanted to see if the way that people were presented information in the classroom would affect how students were able to retain the information they were given,” Chimienti said.

She found that the group that only received the list of the words did the best at recalling the words. “I thought that the best group would be the ones that got the audio recording, because they got two senses – sight and sound, but like two sentences, but the list group did better,” Chimienti said.

Chimienti said the high school students who only had the list had more control over how they learned, because they weren’t forced to use the visual or audio aids. “We kind of all know how we learn best,” she said. “Some kids just read the list over and over, and some kids traced each word with their finger.”

She added that the results might have been different for younger students, who are thought to be more visual learners. Chimienti said she learned a lot during the science fair process, as this was the first year she participated in the fair.

“This definitely showed me that hard work pays off,” Chimienti said. “I put so much time and effort into this, so when I was able to present it to other people and show them what I did, it was very rewarding.”

JHS senior Hannah Mitchell won second place in the senior behavioral and social science division, and JHS sophomore Lilly Conrad received a third place award in the senior biomedical, health sciences and biomedical engineering division.

Luker won the Cape Girardeau Area Engineer’s Club Award, the Regional Biomedical Science Award, the Stockholm Junior Regional Science Fair Certificate of Achievement and the Dr. E. Lawrence Bahn Memorial Scholarship. Chimienti won the American Psychological Association Award.

Jay Forness covers education, county government and community events for The Cash-Book Journal. He graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in multimedia journalism and has lived in Jackson for the past five years. He can be reached at

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