Rachel Davis, Intel Science Talent Search (Intel STS) 2012 Finalist, discusses her research, experience at the Intel STS, and more.
What was your experience being an Intel STS finalist like?
The week I spent in Washington D.C. for Intel STS was the best experience of my life. I was so honored to have been chosen as an Intel STS Finalist, and then the opportunity to fly to Washington D.C. and meet so many brilliant people was just incredible. My teacher kept telling me that I would never be the same afterwards, and she was completely right. All the finalists were treated like celebrities, followed around by cameras and given gourmet meals. The judges were really fun to hang out with, and on the last morning I ate breakfast with two Nobel Laureates. The best part was definitely the people; the other finalists were so smart and fun to be around, and I miss them so much.
Can you provide a short description of your research and how you initially became interested in this topic?
Five years ago, my house burned down. It was a traumatizing experience, and I lost absolutely everything that I owned. However, I stuck to my studies, and I really wanted to help people and prevent what happened to me from happening to other people in the future. I joined my local fire department as a volunteer, and became the first nationally certified firefighter in my department. During my fire training, I saw that a lot more gas tanks are being made of plastics that burn quickly in car fires. This facilitates a need for flame retardant plastics, and I decided to look for labs that would allow me to research how I could create these.
What makes your research different from what has been done with flame retardants in the past?
Traditionally, halogenated substances, or those containing elements like bromine, have been added to materials to improve their flame retardancy. However, these materials have been found to release really dark, dense smoke when they are on fire, and even when they are not on fire they are releasing harmful materials that we are inhaling every day. I used a phosphate-based substance as an alternative to these harmful materials, and it worked as a great flame retardant additive to plastics! Not only could these substances be added to biodegradable plastics, but I’m finding now that they work as great additives to non-biodegradable plastics for uses in electronics.
How has doing original research and participating in programs like the Intel STS affected you?
Performing research in a distinguished science research laboratory was such an honor, and being recognized for this research was an even greater honor. It really means a lot to me that my research was labeled as important and relevant to society; I want to make a difference, and getting recognized for what I have done really means a lot. Intel STS taught me that I am important and that my research wasn’t just like everyone else’s. I have made a difference and discoveries unlike any others, and I hope to inspire others to pursue such goals as mine in the future.
What are your future plans?
This summer, I will continue my research with biodegradable flame retardant materials at Stony Brook University at the GARCIA MRSEC program, where I will also be supervising high school students who would like to compete in competitions like Intel STS and ISEF. I’m really excited to teach students all about my research and how to use the equipment, and I can’t wait to show them how much fun working in a laboratory can be! In the fall, I will attend MIT majoring in materials science and engineering, where I hope to continue my research with polymers. I’m so excited!
Do you have any advice for young students interested in science?
Get involved early!! I think that a lot of students don’t understand that science isn’t just studying from a book – it is all around you. Science is the computer in front of you; looking at how the speaker vibrates to produce a sound and how it was told to speak in the first place. Science is studying bird migration patterns and detecting land mines. Asking questions about how things work is the first step to finding answers, and making great discoveries. If a particular question intrigues you, go and look for the answer, no matter how difficult the journey to the answer might be.