Science & Engineering Fair Student’s Research Published in Scholarly Journal

By Adam Wade, previous Santa Cruz County Science & Engineering Fair Coordinator

Saige Manier presenting Jumping Galls project at Science and Engineering FairEver heard of a Neuroterus saltatorius, or jumping gall? Neither had I until I met Saige Manier at our County Science & Engineering Fair in 2012. Saige, a Harbor High School sophomore at the time, was researching tiny wasp larvae and the seed-like gall that forms around them because of their interesting ability to move, or jump. A cousin of the more commonly known “Mexican jumping bean,” the gall wasp can be found in places like Davis, CA, where oak trees act as hosts. In July and August, galls detach from the oak leaves and fall to the ground beneath the tree. Rather than remaining still, they begin to jump in random directions.

With the help of her mentor, UC Santa Cruz professor David Deamer, Saige studied these insects and analyzed how and why they jump, sometimes keeping thousands of tiny jumping galls in the family refrigerator for months at a time. Her project, called “Jumping Galls: A Novel Mechanism for Motility,” won the top prize at the County Science & Engineering Fair that year, but that was not the end of the story for Saige and her jumping galls.

Saige went on to achieve Second Place in the State Science Fair in the Senior Zoology Division, was awarded an $8,000 scholarship from the Office of Naval Research at the International Science & Engineering Fair, and was one of 60 students honored by Governor Jerry Brown and the California State Senate as part of the Intel Innovation Showcase. Her research took her on to explore the momentum transfer used by the jumping galls as a way to increase fuel efficiency in Mars rover design, and her experiences with Science & Engineering Fairs inspired her to apply to Stanford University, where she is currently attending.

The latest development in her research is that Saige Manier’s science project, “Jumping Galls: a Novel Mechanism for Motility,” is now published in the November 2014 edition of the Journal of Insect Behavior. In a letter to the Sentinel back in 2012, her father, David Manier, wrote this about scholars like Saige, “Their accomplishments not only speak well of them as individuals, but these accomplishments truly highlight the strength of their teachers, mentors, and our local public school system.” After hearing the news from David, I set up an interview with Saige to find out what other students can learn from her adventures in Science & Engineering. Below are Saige’s answers in her own words:

Saige Manier researching Jumping Galls projectHow did you first come to participate in the Science & Engineering Fair? Was this the first time you had completed a research project?
I first came to participate in the Santa Cruz County Science Fair through my sophomore year chemistry teacher, Heather Murphy. She asked if anyone would be interested in doing a research project with a professor at UCSC and I said yes. I then met with Dave Deamer with my dad, and we discussed possible project ideas. Dave showed me a video of the jumping galls, and that’s how the project got started. It was not the first time I had done a research project. I went to Bradley Elementary in Corralitos, where all students 4th-6th grade did science fair projects. I was very excited, so I did my first project in third grade, which was “Do nails rust faster in salt water or fresh water?” Unfortunately, I bought nails coated with something that made it so they wouldn’t rust, so my project never worked! In fourth grade I did the classic laundry detergent experiment, to see if more expensive detergent actually made socks cleaner. Even though it was a simple project, it was a great experience with designing an experiment and using the scientific method. This helped a lot with my fifth grade project, which was called “Clash of the Harvest: Does organically grown produce taste better than conventionally grown produce?” This was my most successful elementary school project. I surveyed hundreds of students, and won second place in my school science fair and first place in the county, in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Elementary Division. In sixth grade I did a project about if fears changed with age, and surveyed a lot of people again.

Were you always interested in Science & Engineering as a child?
I was interested in science and engineering. When I was little I used to watch Nova with my parents, and I always looked forward to it. Then when I was in 7th grade a teacher recommended I apply to a “Girls in Engineering” summer program at UCSC. Through the program, we attended the weekly “Discovery Lectures” of the 8th-12th grade COSMOS program at UCSC. One of the lectures focused on Astrophysics, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I’ve always been interested in space, black holes, time, and the beginning of the universe, so once I finished 7th grade I was inspired to apply to a COSMOS cluster called “Particle Physics and Astrophysics: From the minuscule to the massive.” The head of the cluster did not like letting in 8th graders, and I had to meet with him first and he gave me a logic problem to solve to see how I think. I spent hours and hours on that problem during 8th grade, because I really wanted to go to COSMOS. Eventually I was accepted, and was one of two or three 8th graders in the entire program of hundreds of students. I found the program extremely challenging at times, especially because I was several years behind many of the students. However, the program continued to inspire my interest in Physics and the stars.

How did the experience of attending the International Science & Engineering Fair (ISEF), and winning, change you?
I’d say the biggest change from attending ISEF would be that I was exposed to students very different than many of those I had gone to school with my entire life. I met students doing incredible things and working on projects I could barely understand. I had never met so many people like that before (they are a lot like many of the students I go to Stanford with now). Also, through winning the County Science Fair and placing at the state and getting an award at ISEF, I really saw going to a school like Stanford as an actual possibility. The experience and the people I met exposed me to the whole crazy world of admission to schools like Stanford, Brown, Harvard, etc. For a long time, I thought I would go to community college for two years and transfer to a UC, but through my experiences at ISEF I became more inspired to apply to universities like Stanford.

Tell me about your recent publication, and your experience in college so far; have your interests in Science & Engineering changed/expanded in the past few years?
After many reviews and rewrites, my research finally got published! It is in the Journal of Insect Behavior. So far in college I have taken a lot of science and math classes. I took the Intro Math, Physics, and Chemistry sequences. The summer after my freshman year I worked in a physics lab as part of the program and declared my major as Physics. Then, in the fall of my sophomore year, I continued taking Physics classes, including the most difficult class I have taken at Stanford so far, Special Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. However, this quarter I am changing my direction. Because of the Intro sequences I took, I did not have the opportunity to take many other classes. Right now, I am looking into switching my major to Mechanical Engineering with a focus in design. I still love Physics, and I am still fascinated by the universe, but it got to the point where the math was so abstract, and I think I’d rather work with things I can see.

What would you tell students that are participating in the Science & Engineering Fair at their school, or are thinking about participating?
I would tell students that it is so much fun!! The science fair is a great way to answer questions you are curious about, and you can always be surprised about where it can take you. For example, my project about how gall wasps jump led to a discussion about fuel efficiency, Mars rover design, and space exploration! For elementary and middle school students, I would say that doing a simple project (such as the laundry detergent one) is definitely underrated. You can learn so much from a thoroughly designed experiment on a simpler topic as opposed to doing an experiment on something that you are struggling to understand (I had this experience with my COSMOS final project). For high school students, I would say your best bet if you’re really serious is to work in a lab or with a mentor.

For more information about our Santa Cruz County Science & Engineering Fair, or to volunteer as a judge for this year’s fair on March 7, 2015, visit the Science & Engineering Fair web site.

Photos courtesy of the Manier family, and special thanks to Seagate Technology for their support!