William Byrd students participate in 2020 RVGS Project Forum

By Debbie Adams

Ten students who attend both William Byrd High School and the Roanoke Valley Governor’s School for Science and Technology (RVGS) participated in the prestigious 2020 Student Project Forum on February 1. The RVGS is located on the campus of Patrick Henry High School in Roanoke City, site of the annual Project Forum as well.

The Project Forum has been referred to as “a science fair on steroids.” Students prepare for months. Some work off-site with research programs such as Virginia Tech Carilion.

A total of 269 gifted and talented students from across the Roanoke Valley participated in the competition which represents several scientific disciplines including animal sciences, biomedical and behavioral sciences, cellular and molecular biology, earth and environmental sciences, energy and environmental engineering, engineering mechanics, materials science/chemistry, microbiology, plant sciences, and systems software.

WBHS students participating in the 2020 Project Forum were freshmen Maggie Parkhurst and Rebecca Qiu, sophomores Haley Day and Hunter Sipe, juniors Taylor Dawson, Elizabeth Fedor, Isaac Fix, Adi Iyer, and Joseph Sandzimier, and senior Erin Wienke.

Students choose their projects early on in the school year and begin their research. The month of January is spent completing an “Intercession” focusing full-time on the project, which is then presented at the science forum. The presentations include both oral and written elements.

A panel of judges evaluated the 170 or so projects (some students work in teams) and determined scores based on strength of presentation, comprehension of subject matter, and depth of research.

Top-placing students have the opportunity to advance to a variety of local, regional, state, and international science fair competitions, including the Western Virginia Regional Science Fair at Hollins University on March 21. First place winners also advance to the Roanoke County Science Fair at William Byrd on February 22.

Top award winners from William Byrd for 2020 were:

  • Maggie Parkhurst and Rebecca Qiu, 1st Place (tie) in the Animal Sciences B category for their project, “The Effect of Taurine on the Heart Rate of Daphnia magna.” They and others in their category tested different chemicals and variables on the heart rate of organisms as they mastered the fundamentals of conducting research.
  • Haley Day (working with Kendall Kelly from Patrick Henry High School and Dhruvi Patel from Glenvar High School), 1st place (tie) in Earth and Environmental Sciences B for their project “Using Bioprinted Algae Structures to Determine Which Algae Species is Most Effective at Removing Nitrates.” Real world implications would be using the structures to remove nitrates from contaminated water.
  • Elizabeth Fedor (working with Jennie Pham from William Fleming High School), 1st place in the Microbiology B category with their project “The Effect of Kombucha Fermentation on Level of Peanut Allergens.” They created hypoallergenic peanuts by fermenting them using Kombucha.
  • Adi Iyer, 2nd Place in Earth and Environmental Sciences B, for his project, “Utilization of Bacterial Cellulose as a Platform for Methylene Blue Detection and Adsorption.” Real world implications are using the technique to remove pollutants from water sources.
  • Erin Wienke (working with Coleman Blanton from Hidden Valley High School), 2nd Place (tie) in the Microbiology B category for their project “The Analysis of Curcumin in Preventing Ultraviolet Radiation Damage to the DNA of E. coli.” Real world implications involve protecting cells during radiation treatments for cancer.
Several students who attend both WBHS and the Roanoke Valley Governor’s School placed in competition at the annual Project Forum held on Feb. 1. Shown left to right are Haley Day who won 1st place in the Earth and Environmental Sciences B category, Adi Iyer who won second place in Earth and Environmental Sciences B, Erin Wienke who won 2nd place in Microbiology B, Rebecca Qie and Maggie Parkhurst who won 1st place in Animal Science B, and Elizabeth Fedor who won 1st place in the Microbiology B category (photo by Terri Janiga).

The RVGS was founded in 1985 as a half-day specialized regional public STEM school for highly motivated students in grades nine through 12.

The school serves students from Roanoke City (William Fleming and Patrick Henry High Schools), and Salem City (Salem High School), as well as Roanoke County (William Byrd, Glenvar, Northside, Cave Spring, and Hidden Valley High Schools), Bedford (Staunton River High School), Botetourt (Lord Botetourt and James River High Schools), Craig, (Craig County High School) and Franklin (Franklin County High School) Counties. Establishment of the RVGS has allowed participating school systems to pool their resources and those of the community to the advantage of all.

Students take their math and science courses at the RVGS and their other courses at their home schools. Admission is very selective and determined in a competitive process.

Other WBHS students participating in the 2020 Project Forum included:

  • Hunter Sipe, who worked with Andrew Sakamoto from Hidden Valley High School in the Plant Science A category on “’Pulverized Paper as an Alternative Fertilizer for Plant Growth.”
  • Taylor Dawson, who worked with Fady Abdelmalak from Salem High School on an Engineering Mechanics project “The Picasso Arm,” a robotic arm designed to draw a square with the potential to improve safety for arc welders.
  • Isaac Fix, who worked with Roman Ciulla from Franklin County High School in the Engineering Mechanics B category on their project, “The Super Scooper.” They built a robotic arm to scoop sugar into tea. Real world implications involve scientists using such a device to measure and pour dangerous chemicals.
  • Joseph Sandzimierm, who built a “Weight-based Automatic Pet Food Dispenser” in the Engineering Mechanics category to ensure that pets receive the correct amount of food spaced throughout the day.

RVGS students had the opportunity to work with many mentors from the community on their projects, including Robin Lentz from Mill Mountain Zoo, Dr. Tim Henshaw of Atlantic Technical Consultants, Dr. Melanie Prusakowski at Carilion Memorial Hospital, Dr. John Robertson, Dr. Paul Deck, and Dr. Thomas Staley of Virginia Tech, Dr. John Chappell, Dr. Warren Bickel, Kirstin Gatchalian, Rachana Somaiya, Diana Keith, Patrick Calhoun, Dr. James Smyth, Dr. Zhi Sheng, Dr. Michael Zeitz, Dr. Roberta Freitas Lemos, and  Dr. Stephen LaConte of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute,  Andrew Benson of Carilion Labs, Curry McWilliams from the Roanoke Public Works Division, Emma Jones and Jason Hill of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, Matthew Mail of Cellink, Dr. Jayasimha Rao of Carilion Roanoke Community Hospital, Dr. Mark Frazier of Radford University Carilion, Christopher Fielder from Fidelis Cybersecurity, Seju Kang, and Dr. Peter Vikesland.

To ease some of the stress during the “crunch time” in the last week before the Project Forum, the Governor’s School partnered with the Therapets program and brought in several dogs to give students a respite from routine on January 27. Bonding with pets has been shown to reduce anxiety and increase memory.

Handlers in the morning session included Nancy Thompson with 6-year-old Ripley, an Australian Shepherd; Jenna Fidler with 3-year-old Cohen, a 164-pound Irish Wolfhound; Bob Villamil with Jas, a 5-year-old Yellow Lab trained to hand out candy; and Pam Murray with her 4-year-old Golden Retriever, “Suzy.”

The RVGS partnered with the Therapets organization to provide some stress release for RVGS students preparing intensely for the Student Project Forum. Erin Wienke (center) shares some down time with Therapets handler Jenna Fidler and her Irish Wolfhound Cohen (photos by Debbie Adams)

Terri Janiga, the Community Outreach coordinator for the RVGS, says that for many RVGS students, the annual visit from the Therapet dogs is a highlight of the year.

More information is available on the Roanoke Valley Governor’s School at

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