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A Letter From an ISEF 1956 Alumnus

The Society for Science & the Public recently received a letter from Donald W. Linzey, an Intel ISEF 1956 finalist. He discussed his recollections of the science competition and how it has impacted his life since.

I currently receive the newsletter with information about Society alumni. Most of the articles are about much younger winners and their early careers. I thought that you might like to know how my participation with then-Science Service [now Society for Science & the Public] has affected my career.

I won the very first Baltimore City Science Fair in 1956 – some 55 years ago. It was sponsored by Johns Hopkins University and the North Baltimore Kiwanis Club. The sponsors paid for my family and me to travel to the 7th National Science Fair in Oklahoma City, where I won a 4th Place Award with my exhibit entitled “Herpetology.” We travelled by train, and it was a trip that my entire family has never forgotten. My Mom prepared an entire scrapbook of the trip which I now have.

It is amazing to compare the competition in 1956 with that of recent years. In 2006, the current sponsors of the Baltimore Science Fair (Towson University) invited me back to be the keynote speaker and to help present the Grand Awards at their awards ceremony. I found it hard to believe that 50 years had passed since I had received my award.

I continued my education at Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College) in Westminster, Maryland and then did my graduate work at Cornell University (M.S., 1963; Ph.D., 1966). I taught at Cornell for one year, then taught at the University of South Alabama, Virginia Tech, and for the last 22 years at Wytheville Community College in Wytheville,Virginia.

When I began teaching at Wytheville, I realized that the students in this entire region of Virginia could never progress any farther than their high school fair (and most of the schools did not even have a science fair at that time). I felt a responsibility to give back to the community some of what I had gained by being a science fair winner. Thus, in 1991, my wife and I organized the first Blue Ridge Highlands Regional Science Fair that encompassed seven counties in rural southwestern Virginia. Little did we know how our fair would grow over the years. 

We directed the Fair for 18 years. During this time, our fair’s territory grew to encompass 16 counties and three cities. We stimulated science fairs in many schools over the years. Our Regional Science Fair has students from approximately 15-20 high schools and 15-20 middle schools. We averaged about 125-150 students each year, but had 225 one year. 

We generated a great deal of support from the educational, business, and medical communities. We invited Don Harless and Carrie to our fair one year (he said that it was the only invitation he had ever received to attend a regional fair). Every year, my wife and I would chaperone our two Grand Award winners and their teachers to Intel ISEF – Biloxi, Phoenix, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Diego, Reno, San Jose, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Louisville, and many others.

The trips were very rewarding for the students, their teachers, and for us. We learned a great deal on these trips and, as a result, made many improvements to our fair. On our trip to Biloxi, one of our students told us that he had never been out of the state of Virginia. To see our students win awards at Intel ISEF and to know that we made a positive difference in their lives made all of our yearlong work worthwhile.

I was both fortunate and priviledged to serve as a member of the Intel ISEF Advisory Council for a two-year term from 1995 to 1997.

In 1999 at Philadelphia, one of our students, Nisha Nagarkatti, was one of the two top award winners at Intel ISEF. Accompanied by Don Harless and Carrie, she and the other winner went to the Nobel Prize ceremonies. Nisha has since gone on to achieve her M.D. degree. We have had many First, Second, and Third Place winners at Intel ISEF over the years as well as many winners of special awards and scholarships. Many of our Grand Award winners have been quite successful in their careers. Our very first winner in 1992 is now a practicing nephrologist in Maryland.

In 2009, my wife and I decided that it was time to turn our fair over to some younger folks. I am now 72; she is 70. We are both still teaching and enjoy working with students, but running a fair as large as ours was extremely time-consuming. I am happy to say that our fair is in good hands with Dr. Christine Hermann of Radford University. My wife and I are continuing to help and advise Chris with the logistics, fundraising, etc.

Little did I know how my participation in the Baltimore City Science Fair 55 years ago would affect my life and career. My graduate degrees are in the fields of vertebrate zoology and ecology. My participation in the science fair is still on my CV.      

My interest in herpetology has continued, and I have written two books – “Snakes of Alabama” and “Snakes of Virginia” (three printings). I have worked as a Park Ranger-Naturalist in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and have conducted wildlife research there for the past 46 years. I have written two books on the mammals of the Park plus a major book entitled “The Mammals of Virginia.” In 1998, I authored a textbook which is being used worldwide entitled “Vertebrate Biology” for McGraw-Hill Publishers. The second edition is being published by the Johns Hopkins University Press and is due to be on bookshelves in January 2012. What goes around comes around. Johns Hopkins University was one of the major sponsors that helped me begin my career and now they are publishing my textbook which they will be distributing worldwide.

The science fair experience has been a major part of our lives. We have provided a means for over 2,500 middle and high school students to showcase their scientific talents. We have provided a conduit into the Virginia State Fair as well as to Intel ISEF – opportunities that were nonexistent prior to 1992.

Don and Carrie became good friends. We have also enjoyed working with all of the other members of Science Service and the Society who work so very hard to put on this annual event.

Just thought you might like to know how being a National Science Fair winner 55 years ago has impacted my life and the lives of over 2,500 students.

Dr. Donald W. Linzey, Ph.D.

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