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Chemical Eye on the Starfleet Academy
by Preston MacDougall


May 01, 2006

Chemist's log - stardate 2006.5. Present location: Belmont University, Nashville, Tennessee.

A previous log entry (stardate 2005.10) noted the publication of a report from the National Academies that advise the nation on science, engineering and medicine. Like its sister organizations, the National Academy of Sciences is a private institution, but this report was commissioned by Congress. Its full title - "Rising Above The Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future" - alludes to the impetus, but clearly spells out the goals of the report.

jpg Preston MacDougall

The continuing popularity of Thomas Friedman's economic thriller, "The World is Flat", which ties future prosperity to competency in science and mathematics, may help explain the resurgent interest in science education at the state level. Here, too, the Academies have been engaged, but without as much media attention.

It was for such an engagement that I beamed up to Nashville in my car-ship SUV. The Tennessee Junior Academy of Science was holding its Annual Meeting, and I had again been invited to judge the merits of research projects submitted by nearly 100 science cadets from across the state. (They aren't really called cadets. I'm just trying to keep a metaphor from dying.)

Most states have their own Academy of Science, and Tennessee's dates back to 1912. It is a private institution, funded mostly by member dues. One of the Academy's most impacting activities is its support of the Junior Academy of Science, begun in 1942. The Junior Academy encourages high school science teachers, and their students, to put learning into practice. And when it comes to developing scientific talent, nothing beats independent research.

A small but growing number of high schools have hired scientific research directors, and offer some funding as well as course credit for approved research. At high schools where sports are black holes for extra-curricular dollars, such research is aided by Academy grants to students who propose to do their own scientific research, but need to purchase some supplies. Some students will team-up with federally funded research labs at nearby universities, but propose their own project. After completing their projects, or reaching some sort of milestone, students can write a report and submit it to the Director of the Junior Academy for a possible award.

Jack Rhoton, Professor of Science Education at East Tennessee State University, has been the Director of the Junior Academy since 1992 and does a yeoman's work in support of this state-wide undertaking. He and his Reading Committee make a first-cut and select cadets to present their projects at the Annual Meeting, which is being held on the bustling campus of Belmont University this year. While the joys of discovery are their own reward, Academy dues also fund handsome cash prizes for the cadets that most impress the judges with their ingenuity, background knowledge, and moxie. This is where I beamed in.

I was one of four judges. As a personal log entry, it was good to see my old friend Paul Koehler again. The last time I saw him was in the underbelly of the Oak Ridge Electron Linear Accelerator, fondly known as ORELA. He was showing me where the electrons smash into the tantalum target - producing intense nanosecond bursts of neutrons that he loves so much. These are great for understanding how atoms are manufactured in stars of different sizes, but it was the positrons that ORELA also produces that really captured my attention. A lot of fantastic chemistry can be learned with such anti-matter. Injected into materials by the billions, each lurks about until it encounters an electron, whereupon both are annihilated in a flash of two gamma-rays that tell scientists which way they were going, and at what speed.

As I always tell my students, truth is far stranger than fiction - it just doesn't pay scribes nearly as well.

Paul and I got caught up on our busy wives, who are both legal aliens (from Canada) and knew each other before they met us. We swapped stories about talented children, and then turned our attention to the task at hand. In terms of expertise, we four judges had most subjects covered - from botany to astrophysics. Good thing too, because the outstanding projects ranged from botany to astrophysics.

For instance, Dawn Zhao from Memphis was studying the effect of a particular protein on the extent of heart muscle damage after heart attacks in mice. Her project was done in collaboration with researchers at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, but she knew her stuff cold. When she explained how she "sacrificed" the mice, and studied the heart tissue using an elaborate immunochemistry assay, we knew we were looking at a future science star.

Hunter Clifft's research project was equally impressive, but appeared to have been done in his garage in Camden. Instead of mice, he was dissecting what makes a great skateboard deck. This has been an ongoing project for Hunter, and thanks to very intrigued skateboard manufacturers he no longer needs grants from the Academy. He sacrifices donated decks, and also makes his own out of various materials. He has devised a set of mechanical tests with his eye on finding the secrets to a sweet skateboard. No doubt the nation's top engineering schools have their eyes on him.

Secondary prizes were also awarded to cadets such as the duo from Dandridge, that we dubbed Click and Clack the car guys. Inspired by NASCAR races, not to mention fuel prices, they fitted a skirt around a family car to study how the improved aerodynamics would extend the range of a tank of gas.

From Martin, Amber Laney's project on the effects of Rhizobium on Lycopersicon production attracted the attention of all the judges. Amber had nice tomatoes. BEEP. Computer, there's nothing improper about that log entry - Lycopersicon is the botanical name for the tomato plant.

Logging off, with great confidence in the future of the Academy, as well as the economic future of Tennessee and other states that wisely invest now in science education.


Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (

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