Dr. Ho Chang, who accompanied his son, Belhaven Middle School seventh-grader Sebastian Chang, to the Jersey Shore Science Fair in March, recalls being overwhelmed by the size of the event, which had hundreds of entrants.
Sebastian's project, a study on the optimum number of joints for a robotic hand built to handle radioactive materials, had won Belhaven's science fair, but with dozens of other competitors from throughout South Jersey competing in the engineering category at the regional fair, the odds were stacked against him - but he won his category.
A few weeks later, it was deja vu for Dr. Chang at the Delaware Valley Science Fair, which featured a field packed with the top school-age scientists in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. But despite the competition, Sebastian cleaned up, finishing third in his category and taking home honors from the Leonardo da Vinci Society, the Delaware Valley Society for Radiation Safety, and the International Electric and Electronics Engineers.
While Sebastian said he was confident in his work going into both competitions, his finishes still came as a bit of a shock.
"I knew I had tried my hardest," the 12-year-old Linwood resident said. "I had already come pretty far, but I was surprised every time I would win."
Doing a project on robotics was only natural for Sebastian, who is an avid fan of science fiction and graphic novels and has spent his spare time building machines, like a rubber-band operated top, since early in his school days.
For his project, Sebastian crafted three hands - one with two joints, one with three, and one with four - by affixing plastic straws punched with holes to a wood-and-cardboard base and threading them with dental floss. He tied the floss to small, plastic rings, which he slid onto his fingers, pulling them to operate the hand as if it were his own.
He tested each hand by using them to pick up beakers of different sizes, both weighted with water and without, and measuring with a stopwatch how long they could be held before slipping. Just as he hypothesized, the more joints a hand had, the better it was at handling objects.
Success in scientific fields runs in the Chang family, as both parents are pediatricians. In addition, Sebastian's mother, Magna Chang Dias, was a finalist in the now-defunct Westinghouse Science Talent Search when she was a kid.
By his father's estimation, Sebastian spent hundreds of hours working on the project after school and on weekends. That effort, he said, shows in the finished product.
"It's really a testament to his hard work," Dr. Chang said. "I was actually kind of resistant to him doing the project, because I kind of saw how involved it was going to be."
Not only does Sebastian excel in science, he's a voracious reader as well, spending much of his free time buried in books. He's also a talented trombonist and pianist, playing in Belhaven's jazz band as well as a garage rock band with a friend.
While he's still got a ways to go before he'll have to make concrete plans, Sebastian said he is interested in pursuing biomedical engineering as a career.
More immediately, Sebastian's success in the regional fairs has him nominated for the national Broadcom MASTERS International Science Competition, where he'll have a chance at a $25,000 prize and an opportunity to meet the president. He will submit his project to the organization for consideration in June, and the competition concludes in early fall.
Whatever happens with that competition, Sebastian said, he's just glad to have had the opportunity to participate.
"I feel great," Sebastian said. "I just want to see how far it can go."
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