Albemarle High School student Jee-Ho Kim describes her experiments with simulated “fatbergs” which won the Grand Award at the 2018 Virginia Piedmont Regional Science Fair. Credit: Credit: Josh Mandell, Collectbritain

Albemarle High School student Jee-Ho Kim found inspiration for an award-winning science project in the depths of city sewers.

Kim, a junior in Albemarle’s Math, Engineering and Science Academy, recently was chosen as one of two Grand Award winners at the 2018 Virginia Piedmont Regional Science Fair. Her project examined “fatbergs,” huge masses of congealed grease and trash that form in urban sewer systems.

“Fatbergs are huge, hardened lumps of nasty stuff,” Kim said. “They can divert sewage into waterways and pollute them. And they are expensive to remove.”

Last fall, sanitation crews in London worked for weeks to chip away at a monstrous, 800-foot-long fatberg that was estimated to weigh more than 140 tons. In September, a fatberg in Baltimore clogged a sewer main and sent 1.2 million gallons of sewage into a nearby stream.

Kim tested the ability of various non-corrosive household chemicals to break down fatbergs or prevent them from forming. “My results were not entirely satisfactory, but they showed some potential,” she said.

Kim sought advice from researchers at North Carolina State University who study fatbergs and their chemical components. She learned how to create fatberg models for her experiments by mixing calcium chloride salt into used cooking oil from local restaurants.

Kim said a judge at the Piedmont Regional Science Fair put her in touch with chemical manufacturers who have expressed interest in her research.

“I don’t really like talking on the phone, but I’ve had to do that a lot for this project,” Kim said with a smile.

This summer, Kim will be a counselor at MESA’s Bridge Camp, which teaches middle school girls about math and physics through the process of building wooden pedestrian bridges.

Anders Knospe, a junior at St. Anne’s-Belfield School, also won a Grand Award at the regional science fair. His project presented a method for processing live video to magnify movements that are otherwise imperceptible to the naked eye, such as a baby’s heartbeat.

Mriganka Mandal and Sophie Meyer, both juniors at MESA, were runners-up for the Grand Award. They developed a machine-learning algorithm for MRI image segmentation to better detect hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a chronic heart condition characterized by thickened heart muscles.

Mandal won the Grand Award last year for her research on a potential target for cancer drugs.

“For this year’s project, I got to explore computer science and other fields that I didn’t know I was passionate about,” Mandal said.

The Piedmont Regional Science Fair took place at John Paul Jones Arena on March 7. The competition drew about 300 participants from schools within Albemarle, Culpeper, Fluvanna, Green, King George, Louisa, Madison, Nelson, Orange, Rappahannock, Spotsylvania and Stafford counties.

Winners of the regional fair will compete in the Virginia State Science & Engineering Fair in Roanoke on April 14. Kim and Knospe already have qualified for the Intel Science and Engineering Fair, an international competition held in Pittsburgh on May 14.

MESA students won 13 of 15 first-place awards at the regional science fair. Many of the winners worked on the projects in school as an assignment for the MESA’s 11th-grade engineering course.

Tony Wayne, MESA director, said he encourages students to design projects that align with their personal interests, and to collect as much data as possible to test the significance of their findings.

“The research alone is not enough,” Wayne said. “You also have to communicate it clearly.”

Albemarle County students can apply for admission to MESA in eighth grade. In August, Albemarle schools will begin pilot initiative to provide bus transportation for students enrolled in STEM academies at county high schools they are not districted to attend.

Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.