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U science fair finalists win 2 of 20 spots in international program

The high school students' winning projects—new treatments for lung cancer and a new model that can predict Dengue Fever outbreaks—will attend the prestigious WebValley online summer school.

Two Utah high school students who were finalists in the University of Utah Science & Engineering Fair (USEF) will attend the prestigious WebValley online summer school. WebValley admitted 20 students total, only five of whom live in the United States. WebValley is a data science and artificial intelligence program run by the Fondazione Bruno Kessler, a top research institute based in Italy—this year the students will attend virtually.

Clara Tandar, a senior at West High School, and Tarun Martheswaran, a senior at The Waterford School, were invited to apply to the competitive program because their USEF projects had qualified for the International Science & Engineering Fair (ISEF), although ISEF was canceled due to COVID-19. Their projects are titled Aurora Kinase Inhibitor Synergy Screen to Enhance Chemotherapeutic Sensitivity and An Enhanced Early Detection Model of Dengue Fever Outbreaks Using SEIR Infectious Disease Epidemiological Compartments, Generalized Linear Regression Relationships, and Statistical Computing, respectively.

“These students are doing graduate-level research for their projects. They’re incredibly motivated and have taken their own initiative to become scientists,” said Jody Oostema, program manager for USEF at the U’s Center for Science & Mathematics Education since 2005. Oostema coordinates the annual spring event at The Tower in Rice-Eccles Stadium, finds the 250 qualified judges—half of whom are U faculty—and acts as a mentor to the USEF Student Advisory Board.

When USEF started in 2003, there were 186 science fair projects. This year there were 507 projects submitted by 647 students. The U oversees the state’s science fair, a competition made up of students who have won their regional school district’s fairs. There are three age divisions of USEF: the elementary division for 5th and 6th graders, the junior division for 7th and 8th graders, and the senior division for high schoolers. Only the senior division was able to compete this year, as the others were scheduled after the state implemented COVID-19 restrictions.

“USEF is an incredible environment. Everyone is so supportive of all of the work that we do,” said Tandar. “It inspires me to push myself and I learn so many important skills in the process.”

“Growing up, I saw my sister participate in the U of U’s science fair and knew that I wanted to do a project about what I was interested in,” said Martheswaran. “The feedback I receive from the judges has made my project better every year.”


 Clara Tandar

Senior, West High School; secretary, USEF Student Advisory Board 

PHOTO CREDIT: Science & Engineering Fair

Clara Tandar

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Tandar has competed in the Utah fair since 2017. In May of her sophomore year, she connected with Trudy Oliver, associate professor and HCI Endowed Chair in cancer research whose lab focuses on drug response and drug resistance in lung cancer, one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths in America.

Tandar’s project dealt with small-cell lung cancer (SCLC), a highly aggressive form of lung cancer. People with SCLC have lower survival rates due to a lack of effective therapies. For her science fair project, Tandar investigated various drug combinations to determine the most cytotoxic treatments through a primary and secondary drug screen.

“Dr. Oliver is amazing, Every time I’m in the lab, I learn so much from everyone.” Tandar said. “She gave me a lot of independence with this project, while still being so generous with her skill and guidance. It’s an amazing experience that I am lucky to have.”

Tandar is thrilled to be participating in WebValley to improve her computational biology skills, including coding and single-cell sequencing.

“It’s an amazing opportunity,” Tandar said. “There are few experiences like it available to kids my age. Especially from an interdisciplinary approach to computational biological research.”

Tarun Martheswaran

Senior, The Waterford School; vice president, USEF Student Advisory Board

PHOTO CREDIT: University of Utah Science & Engineering Fair

Tarun Martheswaran

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Martheswaran has participated in USEF for three years. He’s always loved math and wanted to learn how to apply his passion for the subject to solve real world problems. In 9th grade, he reached out to Frederick Adler, a professor in both the Department of Mathematics and the School of Biological Sciences, who introduced Martheswaran to mathematical biology.

Adler paired Martheswaran with a graduate student who worked on modeling infectious diseases. Martheswaran chose to base his science project on Dengue Fever, one of the fastest spreading mosquito-borne diseases that impacts Malaysia, where his entire family lives. There’s currently ongoing research into a vaccine for the disease, but it has been quite challenging due to the presence of four different serotypes in the environment. Thus, the best way to combat Dengue Fever is to find strategies for detecting outbreaks early and reducing transmission.

Martheswaran developed simulations based on mathematical models that established transmission and relationships between climate conditions and infectious mosquito populations in Singapore, and how it correlates to Dengue Fever virus outbreaks. Based on statistical testing, he found a significant “lag time” of 4 weeks for optimal mosquito temperatures and 12 weeks for optimal precipitation in a linear regression model. Testing his strategy with the 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2019 Singapore Dengue Fever Outbreaks showed high measured correlation. He also accurately applied the model to 2019 Dengue Fever outbreaks in Honduras and Cambodia, suggesting that his model could be used to predict outbreaks in around the world. Even with the prevalence of COVID-19, Martheswaran emphasizes the importance of paying attention to Dengue Fever. There have been over one million confirmed cases in the Americas alone in 2020. He hopes to reduce this number in his future.

“I’m very excited to get into a program that’s so tailored to my interests. I’m excited to meet the other teenagers from around the world interested in AI and computational biology,” said Martheswaran.