The scientific mysteries of Pittsburgh







Off the top of my head, I couldn’t tell you a thing that I know about Pittsburgh, save for the long-buried piece of useless trivia that that’s where Anna Stern from The OC was from. And yet there I was for five days last May as the steel city played host to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair 2015.

ISEF, as the competition is more colloquially known, is the largest pre-college science research competition in the world. About 1,700 promising high school students are flown in each year from over 70 countries to compete for scientific grants, scholarships and awards amounting to $4 million.

Pretty Pittsburgh: The delegates and tourists taking the sunshine in before the competition.

This year, five students from the Philippines were chosen to represent the country in what most young scientists consider the ultimate academic battle of wits.

From May 10 to 15, the competition’s home base was located at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; its hulking glass frame overlooking one of the three rivers that cuts through the city like an open vein. Here throngs of impressionable students attended thought-provoking symposiums, met and exchanged ideas with esteemed Nobel laureates and, finally, set up shop at one of the center’s enormous exhibition halls. A dizzying maze of tiny booths plastered with printouts that lay out in excruciating detail the entirety of their research work.

It was here that I got the chance to meet with Jocelyn Andaya, director of the Bureau of Secondary Education, who accompanies and shows her support for the Philippine delegates when she can. She hopes that international competitions like ISEF will encourage more students to go into STEM (Science Technology and Engineering Mathematics) by the time they introduce senior high in 2016.

After snaking my way through the endless convention hall, I managed to track down and interview each of the five Philippine delegates — a startlingly bright bunch of kids whose innovative ideas might just change our vision of the future.



Student: Mary Carmelle Gindap

School: Ilo Ilo National High School (Ilo Ilo)

Project at a glance: Finding potential applications for the antibacterial and anticoagulant properties of the coral-eating starfish

Significance of the study:

“My father is from Antique where there is an overabundance of a certain species of coral-eating starfish. Some people want to find ways to simply destroy it, but I wanted to figure out if there was a long-term solution to the problem. It’s like someone once told me, ‘Research is about finding a purpose for things that aren’t wanted.’”

ISEF Experience:

“It’s my first time in the States and I’m traveling by myself. I love the freedom! I’ve met lots of people with beautiful souls and it’s so nice to meet these people with different languages and to learn from them and their studies. Some of them are really friendly…  and, okay, some of them are really handsome (laughs)!”


Student: Angelo Gabriel Urag

School: Father Saturnino Urios University (Butuan City)

Project at a glance: A one-step approach to making copper super-hydrophobic

Significance of study: “Manufacturing companies currently utilize a two-step approach to waterproofing gadgets, which is first roughening the surface and second coating it. This is very time consuming and expensive, so my project simplifies that process into a single step.”

ISEF experience:

“This is my second time at ISEF but I’ve enjoyed both competitions. It’s always a chance to meet new people, make new friends, and learn from both the projects of others and our own. It gives you the motivation to continue research studies.”



Team Members: Kenneth Michael Angelo Antonio, Marian Cabuntocan, and Thea Marie Tinaja

School: Bayugan National Comprehensive High School (Bayugan City)

Project at a glance: A potential alternative to anti-stroke medication derived from the Diamond Back Squid

Significance of the study:

Kenneth: “In our locality there is a type of squid that is very abundant. We wanted to test it to see if it contained the same neuro-protective properties similar to the giant squid.”

Thea: “With the results of this project we hope to generate a form of prevention that is eco-friendly and, most of all, safe.”

Marian: “Since the Diamond Back Squid is abundant worldwide, we hope that it can be cheaper as well. With our project we hope to make anti-stroke medication more available and accessible.”

The ISEF experience:

Thea: “Qualifying for ISEF was one of my dreams. I have a diary and I even wrote that my birthday wish was to qualify and, oh my God, now I’m here!”

Marian: “It’s so fun talaga. I’m so grateful for the experience na even though it’s our first time to meet each other parang we’ve been friends for so long.”

Kenneth: “I’m having fun making friends with all these highly intellectual minds. Aside from being proud of myself for representing our country in an international contest, it inspired me to do more to improve this project, and maybe someday improve the world.”

Thea: “And also, you can be yourself! Everyone here is kind of a geek. Back home in the Philippines when I’m with other people I can’t show that side of myself. They’d be, like, ‘Oh, Thea is so weird.’ But here I’m not afraid to be myself: the Thea that loves science so much. It’s the greatest.”

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