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At International Science Fair, Austin Whiz Kids Shine

The floor of the Intel ISEF, held in Pittsburg.
Photo courtesy
The floor of the Intel ISEF, held in Pittsburg.

Today is the final day of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the world’s largest pre-college science and engineering competition, with more than $3 million in awards and prizes.

Austin was well-represented at the Pittsburg-held ISEF, with several teens from area high schools vying for honors. KUT News talked to Michael Mann, an 18 year-old senior at Austin’s Westwood High School – and ISEF 2012 winner.

Mann’s project investigates the effects of the fungus Piriformospora indica on the water content and biomass of plant roots – or more simply, whether the fungus will cause a plant to grow more roots, enabling it to take in more nutrients and grow bigger and faster.

“What I’m working with are fungi that colonize the root of the plants to increase crop production,” Mann said. “What my research is trying to do is see if I can take this p. indica fungus and actually implement it into actual farm soil, to see what the fungi does in a real environment.”

Mann’s interest in plant science has been longstanding. “I’ve always been interested in plants, how they interact, and how there’s much more going on with them than you think,” he said. “Most people don’t realize there’s so many systems, so many organisms, or even other plants, that affect each plant. It’s really cool how you can take something really simple and you can actually make the plant do some really amazing stuff with it.”

Mann hopes his research could be a solution for meeting growing food demands.

The Intel International Science and Engineering Fair is a program of Society for Science and the Public, which provides a chance for young scientists to shine. Each participant is assigned a project in one of 17 technical categories covering a wide variety of scientific topics.

But after all that hard work, it’s party time.

“In the morning, for the first day pretty much you’re setting up your project, getting it all ready, getting the forms, making sure you're ready,” Mann said. “At night it’s pretty much almost like a party, where you meet the other people there, and they have music, you go to events. Pretty much you work in the morning, and then at night you get to go meet other people, play games, and have fun, which is really what it should be about.”

That schedule has paid off: Today, Mann learned he won second place in the plant science category, a special award from U.S. Army, and a $3,000 scholarship. “I was very surprised,” Mann said. “I was expecting I wouldn't get that high of a rank. When they announced the fourth and third spots, I thought ‘that’s about it, I didn’t place.’ Getting second is really amazing. I can’t believe it, honestly.”

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