Laura Fulton, 18, of Egg Harbor Township, has been interested in dental research since she lost her first baby tooth. Michelle Moffa, 18, of Linwood, became interested in the importance of clean water in elementary school, when the water supply was shut down during a family trip to a Navajo reservation in New Mexico. Now seniors at Egg Harbor Township and Holy Spirit high schools, respectively, they have turned an early love of science fairs into awards at national competitions.
This month, both were among 300 students in the nation chosen from almost 1,800 applicants to be semifinalists in the 2014 National Intel Science Talent Search.
Moffa's project is developing point-of-use water filters for developing countries.
Fulton's project is developing a safe method to re-create the tooth enamel layer. She has applied for a patent.
Both students worked independently and received help from professors at the University of Pennsylvania, where Fulton has been an invited researcher at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine since August 2012.
Their interest in research was born and nurtured at elementary and middle school science fairs. Over the years, both went on to win awards at the annual Jersey Shore Science Fair held at Richard Stockton College.
But once they got to high school, they said, there was less opportunity to do advanced research in school, so they began reaching out to college professors with similar interests for help.
"I figured the worst they could do is say no," Fulton said. They didn't, and she spent a good part of the summer at UPenn.
"They were all very encouraging," she said of the other researchers. "I think they liked that I was getting so involved as a high school student."
Fulton said she chose tooth enamel research because she had a friend who never developed the enamel layer on her teeth and another who lost tooth enamel because of acid reflux.
"There is no natural regeneration of enamel," she said. "Once it wears away, the tooth is exposed."
She said while enamel can be re-created, the challenge is getting it to adhere to the tooth. She said she has been able to identify a bonding agent and has filed a patent for the product.
Moffa said her first science fair as a seventh-grader at the Belhaven School in Linwood hooked her on research.
"I like finding new things," she said.
Her current project involves improving water filters to make them more effective and sustainable, so they can filter out microorganisms and arsenic found in water in Third World countries.
"I like doing something that makes the world a better place," she said, adding she has learned to appreciate the importance of water to life.
"It is the basis for everything," she said. "There are women in Third World countries who travel all day just to get water that we take for granted."
Moffa also had help from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and spent last summer at the Simons Summer Research Program at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where participants were encouraged to enter their projects in the Intel competition.
"There were 40 of us, all science nerds," she said. "Eighteen of us were Intel semifinalists, and I really wasn't expecting it, so it's really exciting."
Fulton and Moffa are friends, having met at science and music events, where both play the flute.
"We actually met in eighth grade in South Jersey Band then saw each other at science fairs," Moffa said.
Both also entered the national Siemens math, science and technology competition in 2013, when Moffa made it to the semifinals. Fulton was one of five regional finalists and competed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston last fall.
Both want to encourage more students to get into science. Moffa helped form a science club at Holy Spirit High School during her sophomore year. Fulton said she does not come from a science family, but her parents always took her to museums and encouraged her interest in science.
"Science education is really important," Moffa said. "When you do projects, you are learning hands on."
While neither made it to the Intel finals, they are thrilled to have made it to the semifinals and plan to continue their research into college and beyond. Each will receive $1,000 for themselves and $1,000 for their high schools to use to promote science education.
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