From left, South River High School sophomores Allison Raines and Sally Albright, both 15, won a "First Award" in a recent competition sponsored by Intel. The duo teamed up for a project studying the effect of certain chemicals on the filtering abilities of oysters. (Photo by Joe Burris, Baltimore Sun / May 27, 2014)

South River High School sophomores Allison Marie Raines and Sally Albright recently discovered what happens when you combine an interest in chemistry with a passion for protecting Chesapeake Bay oysters.

The result was a first prize for environmental management at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles for a project that detailed the effect that chemicals used in antifreeze can have on oyster populations.

The two students, who are enrolled in the school's science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) program, captured the fair's $3,000 first prize. A $1,000 grant will also be given to their school, one of two county schools that offer magnet programs for STEM disciplines.

Intel officials said student winners in grades nine through 12 compete in the event by winning a top prize at a local, regional, state or national science fair. More than 1,700 finalists attend the fair.

Anne Arundel County schools have previously garnered top honors in the competition. North County High School student Jack Andraka captured the $75,000 overall top prize in 2012.

This time, making the county's mark at the competition was Raines, 16, of Edgewater, the daughter of a retired pilot who long ago learned about the impact of ethylene glycol — an ingredient in antifreeze used on planes before takeoff during the winter. She pondered the impact of the ethylene glycol on the environment.

"I understand that we were using all these chemicals, but we weren't understanding their impact," said Raines.

She teamed up with Albright, 15, of Edgewater, whose home borders the bay. Fascinated with oyster restoration since taking part in a project as a Brownie, Albright pondered how the condition of bay water affected the eastern oyster, a species in salty waters along the bay.

The eastern oyster is a "keystone species," a creature whose existence contributes to the natural order of an ecosystem. Remove the species, and the ecosystem's order is disrupted, if not endangered.

The duo called the project, "Effect of Antifreeze on a Keystone Species."

"The eastern oyster is a filter feeder," Albright said. "One of the main benefits of that filter-feeding activity is that it can clean the water. As soon as something bad happens to it, the ecosystem could potentially collapse."

The two conducted experiments in Albright's laundry room, using 5-gallon buckets, bay water, small samples of ethylene glycol and a fish tank aerator to simulate plants that put oxygen in the water and algae for a food source.

Through various tests, they determined that ethylene glycol affected oysters' filter system.

Said Raines, "We were able to conclude that ethylene glycol has a very significant impact on the oyster's respiratory system."

Despite their findings, Raines and Albright said they were surprised by the award.

"We were just kind of sitting there, all bummed out, because we were crossing our fingers for fourth place," Raines said. "When fourth place came and they didn't call our name, we were bummed out.

"And then we hear, 'Edgewater, Maryland,' and we look up and we were like, 'What? Is that us? We're the only ones from Edgewater. Is that a mistake?' And then they said our names."

"It was shocking, to say the least," Albright said. "We're surrounded by these projects that are so phenomenal and involved. People are designing things that are really going to change the world if they really decide to pursue it.

"We probably didn't appreciate our project for what it was until we got the placing that we did."

Not everyone was surprised.

"For two 10th-grade girls to come up with that experiment is phenomenal," said Edie Picken, assistant principal at South River High School. "I was so shocked that they would not believe that they would have won something like that, when the environment ... is such a critical focus."

jburris@baltsun.com