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The Science Bug; For some high school students, the rite of spring is played out not on a grassy field but in the fierce challenge of science fair competitions

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Science burns like a fever when it first takes a kid, even late bloomers such as Mani Kahn who wake up one day at 17 standing over a gel laced with DNA and suddenly realize the world has changed.

Friends cruise at night without him. The lacrosse team loses a player. Somewhere a boy has vanished among flasks and Bunsen burners on a search for answers to an experiment with an exhausting name -- "The Role of ADH2*3 and Parental Environmental Exposures on Birth Weight and Gestational Age."

On days when he would otherwise lift weights at the gym or rumble bare-knuckled with buddies in a karate class, Kahn prepared for an unlikely rite of spring.

The season of science fairs runs from February to May all across the country, coinciding with final basketball games and colleges' spring breaks. Silenced gymnasiums and empty campuses open to crowds teeming with 13-year-olds who have tested toothpastes or soaps and high school seniors, such as Kahn, who have tumbled into some black hole of a hypothesis and come away with a find.

It is a surprising passion. As Kahn says, "It's not the prestige, it's the pursuit."

He became this spring's dark horse as a student at Centennial High School in Ellicott City, pursuing a project as an intern in a University of Maryland lab in Baltimore. Over the year, he had examined 1,200 blood samples from infants in Maryland to see whether a genetic variation in some babies protects them from potentially harmful substances mothers expose themselves to during pregnancy -- everything from hair dyes to caffeine to alcohol.

The project won the Howard County science fair late in February, and Kahn honed his verbal skill presenting to dozens of judges at the College Park fair in early March.

By the time he set up Saturday for the 45th annual Baltimore Science Fair at Towson University, he was ready. The awards amounted to little more than ribbons and calculators and $100 savings bonds. But as the last in this year's sequence of local contests, Baltimore represented the final step to the granddaddy of competitions, the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair in May, when prizes rise to $40,000 scholarships and an invitation to Nobel Prize festivities in Stockholm.

A fair can transform the winner. Last year, a popular film titled "October Sky" told the true story of a young boy's unlikely escape from his West Virginia coal town after winning a high school science fair that launched an illustrious career in aeronautics. A few years ago an Intel winner was a girl from Appalachia who grew up in a home without running water or electricity. Today she studies at Princeton.

The Intel Science Search (formerly sponsored by Westinghouse) counts among its alumni five Nobel laureates, nine MacArthur Foundation winners and three recipients of the National Medal of Science.

So for six hours Saturday behind the closed doors of Towson's student union, Kahn and more than 160 kids had reason to submit to an inquisition about projects some had taken two years to complete. With the level of local competition at its peak and judges scrutinizing the most innocuous flaws, merely conquering intimidation could be the sweetest reward.

Kahn seemed characteristically unflappable.

It wasn't meant to happen this way. Although at the Howard County fair, Kahn beat Centennial's best and brightest, his mere entry into the contest challenged the preconceptions of his teachers.

"I hate to say it, but I was a little surprised," said his research project adviser, Michelle Bagley. "Mani's more of an average Joe."

True, even as a bright student, he did not run with the select -- the ones who organize school dances, set athletic records and lead after-school clubs. He acknowledges being previously uninspired by science, wholly unmotivated by the quest for a perfect grade point average and unimpressed by the example of the school "intellectuals." Unlike kids he calls "spirited" or the ones enrolled only in gifted and talented classes, Kahn was a lot less concerned about the kinds of ambitions held by students who refer to their anxious combining of extra-curriculars and advanced courses as a "high school career."

Here's a kid with a clean beard and a car with a fluorescent stick shift. His idea of fun once might have meant dragging a trash can from a friend's bumper through the neighborhood.

A few teachers objected to his application to the school's science internship program last spring. They didn't like the kids he hung out with or think he fit the profile of a suitably serious young man.

"Mani had some wild oats to sow," said Bagley, who wondered herself whether she could trust him to leave school to work at a lab during the day.

When he heard their qualms, Kahn wasn't sure exactly how to explain himself.

Maybe he wanted a challenge. Maybe he just stopped underestimating himself. Maybe, with a year left in high school, he saw time running out.

"I guess I wasn't ready for something like this before," he said.

Bagley accepted him, and for the first month before going to work in the epidemiology lab of Professor Chris Loffredo, he read books about genetics. Beginning in June, he drove into Baltimore every Saturday morning at 8, started testing blood samples, organized data sets, ran chi square tests and studied genotypes. He shared lunch with weary graduate students and spent glorious afternoons grappling with the mysteries of the double helix.

From the time of their initial interview, Loffredo said, he saw not a young slacker, but an exceptionally bright boy with irresistible curiosity and intellectual power.

"He's always asked fantastically good questions," Loffredo said. "He's extremely capable and really quite mature. People who come into the lab still can't believe he's a high school student. He's just that good."

The year leading to Saturday's fair was an awakening. His mother delights in it. His teachers still talk about it. His old friends hear him discussing about genetics and wonder what happened.

For one, science competitions force students to go face-to-face with university professors who challenge their research. Because the contests are not, like sports events, open to spectators, odd moments of humiliation or leaps in confidence go largely unobserved. But they do occur, often in the seclusion of some great hall or gymnasium where they compete. Like others, Kahn has stood up to tough questioning this year, going hour after hour offering impassioned explanations of scientific principles and defending his work.

At some schools, science fairs have as much importance as athletics because of the prestige that comes to winning schools and the value they bring to students whose training extends far beyond a classroom. In some Howard County schools, such as Centennial, impressive teams have galvanized under internship programs that place students at labs in prestigious research institutions, from Johns Hopkins Medical School to the National Institutes of Health.

Cross-county rivalries stoke events that can seem as important as fall football championships. Every serious contender in Maryland, for instance, eyes the teams from Montgomery Blair High School, where students have built something of a science fair dynasty over the past decade. (Last year, the Silver Spring magnet school placed an unheard-of six finalists among 40 in the Intel Science Talent Search.)

"It's a sport for some of these kids," said Bagley of her Centennial brood. "There are some schools they really have it out for."

But Kahn's transformation couldn't be explained by the competition alone.

His friends try to explain it, but all they can do is observe.

"Mani's just become really motivated," said Vik Prasanna, a pal since fourth grade who came in second at last year's Baltimore Science Fair and competed Saturday in his final event as a Centennial student. "I've never seen him so determined."

When the winners were announced late Sunday afternoon, Prasanna's name came up among the honorable mentions. Another Centennial student, Shankar Sridhara, won the grand prize for his work on biological warfare, giving him a ticket to the Intel fair.

Kahn didn't make the finals.

But he had made history of sorts. A handsome trophy for his first-place award in Howard County will join the displays at Centennial alongside the prizes of tennis stars and winning football teams. At the University of Maryland lab, he will be recalled warmly by Loffredo and his graduate students.

What he remembers, though, may be something much different.

Two weeks ago at the University of Maryland lab, as Kahn prepared yet another batch of DNA for tests, he tried to describe something less tangible, beyond the quest for grades, professional ambitions, test scores, contests, and teachers' expectations. Yes, he said, he had won a full scholarship to the University of Maryland Baltimore County and he had hopes of working with Loffredo again next year. But something far more fundamental was at stake in this year that still unfolds with surprise.

Take the word "educate," he said, struggling to explain. To find out what it really means, you have to turn to the Latin root, educo, which he said means "to bring out the divine ability."

On Saturday morning, moments before the crowd of judges started their tour and inquisition among exhibitors, Kahn turned to a friend who had asked if he felt relaxed and confident.

He answered like a recruit who had passed initiation.

"It really doesn't matter," he said, shrugging. "I feel like I've already won."

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