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Mind like a ‘Steele’ trap

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By Mike Forster

    Thirty of the finest young scientific minds congregated in Washington, D.C., last week.

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    One of them came from Bedford.
    The aspiring scientists displayed their work; discussed their theories with CEOs, professors and astronauts; and even met the president of the United States.
    “Going to Washington was life-changing,” said Hannah Steele, an eighth grader at Bedford Middle School, who was among the select group.  “It showed me there are some really great people out there that I didn’t know about.”
    Hannah was in Washington for the finals of the Broadcom MASTERS 2013 National Science Fair.  It is the science equivalent of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
    (Hannah should be familiar to readers of the Bedford Bulletin, as she is a frequent contributor to the newspaper’s sports section.)
    Hannah’s project consisted of her fabricating a magnetometer capable of detecting the direction of magnetic fields generated by solar flares.
    Using MacGyver-like resourcefulness and a deep-rooted love of astrophysics, Hannah built her magnetometer using neodymium rare earth magnets, a laser and special mirrors.
    The device can be used to detect the direction and magnitude of solar flares.
    In practical terms, such a device can   help   anticipate   when  sudden bursts of the sun’s energy might affect us.  Solar flares have been known to disrupt satellite operations (such as GPS) and to hit transformers on the electrical grid, causing appliance-destroying surges.
    In comparison with data collected by government-based magnetometers, that collected by Hannah’s homemade instrument was spot-on accurate.
    Examples of other projects at the national science fair included one on quantum locking in superconductors and frictionless motion, as well as another on affordable detection lab equipment for Dengue virus in developing countries.
    This was obviously not your erector-set-and-tinker-toy type science fair.
    While Hannah didn’t claim the top prize, she certainly came away with significant recognition.  Her school was awarded a $1,000 grant and Hannah received $750, a Raspberry Pi (computer system) and a jacket.
    Additionally, a planetoid was named in her honor and one was named in honor of Hannah’s teacher, Sylvia Robertson.
    In addition to presenting her findings at the National Geographic Society, Hannah also worked with a team of fellow finalists on science-related projects.
    Her group, the Red Team, wound up receiving the top-group award at the finale awards banquet.
    The highlight for Hannah, however, seemed to come from the people she met.  She cited three, in particular.
    —President Barack Obama, who met with the group in between his meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of Congress. The president shook hands with each of the finalists before giving them an impromptu tour of the Oval Office.
    —Scott McGregor, the CEO of Broadcom.  Hannah sat next to him at dinner one evening, able to pick his mind about all things science.
    —Jeanette Epps, a NASA astronaut, with whom Hannah found a common connection through her love of astrophysics.  Said Hannah, about meeting an actual astronaut, “How cool is that?”
    Hannah’s big adventure started out modestly enough, when she took first place at the Bedford Middle School science fair.
    From there, she participated in the Central Virginia Science Fair.  Her project was well-regarded enough to be nominated for the Broadcom fair.
    So were 6,000 others.
    She found out she was one of 300 semifinalists in August.  “I figured it was a longshot to be one of the semifinalists,” she said.  “I would have been fine if I’d only been a semifinalist.”
    But later that month, she received a call telling her she was a finalist.  “I figured [the caller’s] ear drums had been broken over the course of the day, so I didn’t scream,” Hannah recalled, with a laugh.
    With that, she was on her way.
    After her trip, Hannah said, “The Society of Science and the Public wants [the finalists] to go home and tell people about this experience and get them excited about science.”
    Of course, Hannah is already as excited as one young student can be.  Of course, she’s been that way for a while.  “It is my moral obligation to understand as much of the world as I can,” she noted.
    Her trip to D.C. certainly helped in that department.