September 7, 2005 - Alex Erstad has the mind of a brilliant scientist, the accuracy of a reputable mathematician and the know-how to turn it all into a career, but he is only in the sixth grade.
The 11-year-old Orange Grove Middle School student has been chosen as one of 400 semifinalists for the seventh annual Discovery Channel Young Scientist Challenge.
The selection is an honor of national proportion that could land the pint-size scientist scholarships, federal recognition and further science-related opportunities worldwide.
It all started last year when Alex was given an injection, something he frequently receives as a carrier of juvenile arthritis. This time, the medication-filled syringe he was used to seeing was replaced with a larger one, prompting the young science-minded student to question the accuracy of the measurement.
Alex questions many things. Chalk that up to genetics. His father Brian, is a professor at the University of Arizona in the College of Pharmacy, and his mother is an electrical engineer. Some might say that math and science run through his blood. All Alex knew was that he had an experiment on his hands. After he received his injection, his mind went to work, and his father opened up the lab and let the young man go, he said.
"I was quality control," Brian Erstad said, making sure to point out that his son did all of the work for the project, himself.
Alex began this project as any scientist would. He formed a hypothesis. He believed that a larger syringe size would lower the level of accuracy in measuring liquid - water, for his experiment.
He spent hours in the lab, watched closely by his father, he said. He measured three syringe sizes time after time, 270 times, total, he said. And when everything was measured, computed and tallied, Alex's hypothesis was correct.
When he used the largest syringe, 10 milliliters, to measure .5 milliliters of water, the reading was the most inaccurate, he said.
"That surprised me," Brian said. He trusted his son but didn't fully believe that using a larger syringe would make much difference in the amount of liquid dispensed. But clearly Alex knew better, he said.
Alex took his results to the 50th-anniversary Southern Arizona Regional Science and Engineering Fair, held last March at the Tucson Convention Center. He was one of the winners in his grade level, he said.
While at the fair, he was chosen as a finalist for the Discovery Channel Young Scientist Challenge. He had no idea there was even another chance to win something, he said. When he found out, he was thrilled.
"I was really amazed and surprised," he said.
Alex's science project, titled "Accuracy and reproducibility of small volume injections using different syringe sizes," was one of five projects created by Southern Arizona students chosen as semifinalists for the national competition.
Conrad Hom from Bloom Elementary, Brigg Jannuzi and Teyvan Lowe from Doolen Middle School and David Charles from St. Cyril School were among the other local qualifiers.
More than 60,000 students around the globe enter science fairs annually and are eligible for the national competition. That number is then stripped down to 6,000 middle school students nominated by the science fair directors. The competition is the only one if its kind, according to its Web site. After the nominations are in, the competition's judges select 400 semifinalists, and this year Alex was one of the chosen.
Students are judged on the scientific merit of their projects and their ability to communicate the science of them, according to the Web site.
Alex now must wait for the official word, to see if his science project was one of the 40 chosen finalists. If so, he will receive an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C., to compete in the finals in October. The winners will receive scholarships and prizes.
For right now, Alex said he is just content with the certificate he received naming him one of the 400 semifinalists.
Caryl Jones, librarian at Ventana Vista Elementary School and Alex's legorobotics advisor, said she was not at all surprised to hear about his nomination.
"He really does thrive for trying to figure out problems," she said. "He's a real good explorer."
Proving a great mind never rests, Alex is already rounding up the materials for his next science project. He will use the same principal, but this time, instead of drawing water into different-size syringes, he will use his arthritis medicine to see if that will make a difference with the results.