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Science Fair Winner

Russell, Westfield students win awards at regional science fair, qualify to advance

By Amy Porter | The Westfield News |


SPRINGFIELD — While a Pope Francis student from Russell won the grand prize award at the Region IV Science Fair at Western New England University on March 10, Westfield High School students also fared very well, with one first place award, one second place, and six third place winners.

The Sanofi Specialty Grand Prize Award went to Elizabeth Hanechak of Russell, a sophomore at Pope Francis Preparatory School in Springfield. Hanechak’s biochemistry project, “The Deletion of a Disulfide Bridge through Site-Director Mutagenesis to Adapt Cutinase to the Biodegradation of Polyethylene Terephthalate,” earned her a slot in the International Science and Engineering Fair at Dallas, Texas, in May.

Putting her project in plain English, Hanechak explained that she was mostly focused on trying to find a practical solution to the plastic disposal problem. She said recycling doesn’t really work, because less than 4% of the 51 million tons of plastic in the U.S. gets recycled annually. Incineration also doesn’t work, as it is well known that burning plastic releases toxic chemicals. Hanechak said biodegradation uses naturally occurring microorganisms to degrade the plastic, but is very slow and takes a long time, making that solution also impractical.

“My research was trying to improve an enzyme shown to degrade plastic, to make it work faster and more efficiently,” she said, adding that the experiment went pretty well, “beyond what I was hoping for — my mutations degraded the samples 55% better than [others]. One degraded an entire plastic sample within 24 hours.”

Hanechak said since Pope Francis does not have a high school science fair, she did the research on her own, reading scientific journals for months before coming up with the idea for the research proposal. She worked with a microbiology professor at Westfield State University on the project as an independent research student, funded by her mother, she said.

Hanechak said Pope Francis has been very supportive, giving her access to most scientific journals, and time off to go to the lab. They will also give her a week off to go to the International Science Fair in Dallas.

“Science is my everything,” Hanechak said. Regarding the plastic problem, she said, “It’s really scary to think about in the future, but it’s exciting to see people working on it. It gives you new hope, that all is not lost.”