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Society Alumnus Becomes Long-Time Regional Science Fair Volunteer

Lawrence (Larry) Gettleman was a finalist in the 1958 National Science Fair, now known as the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF). Larry continued to pursue a career in the sciences, and is now a professor of prosthodontics and biomaterials at the University of Louisville’s School of Dentistry.  He has also been involved with several science fairs, including volunteering for more than 20 years with the Louisville Regional Science Fair, which will celebrate its 50th year in 2014.

We had an excellent science department at Miami Beach High School, led by Mrs. Lois Allsworth, and I went to science camp at Florida State University between my junior and senior years in high school. I was already hooked on science and technology by then, so I quit the high school band in my senior year to have more time to work on science fair. My original project was called a “Polarographic Fluid Analyzer” that measured the amount of polarized light reflected from the surface of various organic and inorganic liquids as a function of the angle of incidence of the light to the surface.  It’s a field that today is called ellipsometry. Ironically, the judge for physical sciences at my high school science fair was the bandmaster, who gave me only an honorable mention. But I went on to win a first place in physical sciences at the South Florida Regional Science Fair, which qualified me to attend the National Science Fair held that year in Flint, Michigan (not Indianapolis as in the 1999 movie October Sky, based on Homer Hickam, Jr.’s book Rocket Boys).

Back then, students didn’t stay with their projects during judging.  Instead, we went on field trips in the area. I visited a General Motors Chevrolet assembly plant and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor campus. There was also a large NASA display on the campus of Flint Junior College for us. One of the most memorable experiences at the fair was a problem with the 500-watt 35mm slide projector in the cabinet that I used to display my project.  It was controlled by pinball machine relays and was cycled so many times by the judges that the projector overheated and caught fire!  But my project had already been judged and I ended up with 4th place in physical sciences.  My success in science fair made me convinced that I had made the right career choice by focusing on the sciences.

As an engineering major at Rutgers College, I struggled with the math requirements so I switched to pre-medical/dental courses. I went on to attend the Harvard School of Dental Medicine and have pursued an academic career in dentistry. I’ve trained or worked in St. Louis, San Francisco, Boston, New Orleans, and now have been in Louisville for 22 years. I tell people that dentistry is like engineering without the math, especially in my specialty area of prosthodontics, because I can build bridges and replacement body parts.  I have had a number of NIH grants and many research papers, received three patents, and have another one in progress.

I became involved in science fairs again because a patient of mine in the mid-1980s was on the science fair board in New Orleans. I served there for 5 years and was board president when I left. After moving to Louisville in 1990, I joined the Louisville Regional Science Fair board. During my involvement, we’ve increased from 150-200 to 400-500 projects each year in the two Louisville area fairs (including duPont Manual High School, which hosts its own fair).  We are looking into expanding to accept students from across the Ohio River in southern Indiana, whose fair recently closed.  In addition to being on the board of the science fair and publishing our program, I also manage three special awards.

I attended my first modern ISEF in 1995 in Hamilton, Ontario where I met the Society (then named Science Service) board chair Dudley Herschbach. With our board’s approval, I invited ISEF to Louisville in 1997 and helped to organize the committee. I invited some Harvard Medical School Nobelists to attend and we hosted the first “Night with the Nobels,” which has continued in some form at every Intel ISEF since.  This was also the first year that Intel was a supporter, becoming the named ISEF sponsor the next year. Due in part to Intel’s involvement, we ended up with a surprise $300,000 cash surplus from our local fundraising efforts (we raised $800,000 in cash and $700,000 in in-kind contributions).  The surplus was used to create the Kentucky Science Fair Endowment fund to support all science fairs in the state and provides financial support for six local fairs we have today. The Intel ISEF returned to Louisville in 2002 and we would like to host it again at some time in the future.

I encourage everyone I meet to participate in science fairs.  For adults, it is gratifying to see what happens with kids as they move on and we try to follow the careers of our fair participants. One high school junior who won the Automotive Science Award in 2011 expressed an interest in flying, so I took him up in my Cessna.  During a refueling stop, he was invited to sit in the cockpit of a new Lear jet. He made up his mind that day to make flying a career, so he got his private pilot’s license during his senior year at duPont Manual High School and is now attending a 4-year flight training program at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale to become a commercial pilot. It is great to be able to reward and encourage young people to do something innovative.

My advice for students interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is to remember that “nerds rule.” Don’t be afraid to be technological; new ideas and innovation are the pinnacle. Linus Pauling said that the only way to have good ideas is to have lots of ideas, and to discard the ones that don’t work. You never know what will turn out if you don’t have the guts to try. Science fair promotes the creation and testing of ideas.  It’s also a great experience and can only help your application for college and future jobs.