August 18, 2012
Family follows scientific path
Youngest siblings latest to enter national science fair
CORTLANDVILLE — Science has been good for the Gustafson family.
The four children have all been semifinalists in the National Science Fair, as sixth-grader Julia and seventh-grader Drew were named this week to receive the honor.
Older brothers Aaron and Erik were previous semifinalists, with Erik winning the competition in 2007.
Their father, Olaf, is senior environmental professional at Cornell University’s College of Engineering and a part-time doctoral student, researching volcanoes located on the moon. Their paternal grandfather, John Gustafson, is a biologist and a founder of Lime Hollow Center for Culture and the Environment.
Their mother, Paula, says she is not a scientist — she teaches piano — but avidly supports everyone.
The National Science Fair is sponsored by the Broadcom Foundation’s MASTERS program, which stands for Math and Science Technology Engineering Rising Stars.
The foundation was created by Broadcom Corp., a creator of wired and wireless communications products.
Julia and Drew Gustafson, who both did projects about Australian wild soybeans, were among 300 other middle school students from 290 schools in 38 states, chosen as semifinalists out of 6,000 who applied. Only six other semifinalists were from New York state.
Julia and Drew were chosen from a Homer Central School science fair in the spring to present in a regional science fair in Syracuse.
Three students each in sixth, seventh and eighth grades were invited to apply in June to the national fair.
They are waiting to hear if they are among the 30 finalists, who present their projects to experts at a gathering in Washington, D.C.
They each have large poster boards that outline their projects, with explanations of why soybeans matter in the world food supply and photographs of the person who suggested the projects, Cornell plant science professor Susan Sherman-Broyles, who lives in Cortland.
“Sue was riding the morning bus to Cornell with Olaf when he asked her for a suggestion on what the children could do,” Paula Gustafson said. “She gave him ideas and offered to provide the seeds, then advise the kids.”
Sherman-Broyles is part of a team that hopes to cultivate soybean species that are more resistant to disease and pests, easier to grow and able to support sustainability.
Julia and Drew Gustafson are both interested in astronomy, with Julia wondering about the shape and nature of the Milky Way galaxy and the universe itself, Drew enthralled with the prospect of life beyond Earth.
But Drew also is enthralled with botany, and both children had worked with plants through 4-H. They liked the research topics about wild soybeans.
Julia examined five species to see if the smallest seeds germinated — start to grow — the fastest, which turned out to be true. She used 180 soybean seeds.
She also found that more experiments are needed to see if extra chromosomes are responsible for the faster germination rates.
Drew used 441 seeds to study whether seeds germinated slower the longer they were exposed to ocean water.
He simulated ocean water and soaked seeds in it, finding that ocean water actually sped up germination in some species.
“It was pretty tough,” Julia Gustafson said of preparing her project. “It took about a month to prepare this whole thing, then a month to do this application.”
Sherman-Broyles used their work in her own research, making them academic contributors while still in middle school.
“Soybeans are used in so many products now, it’s important to know where they came from,” Drew said.
Paula Gustafson said she had no idea her daughter was so fascinated with astronomy.
Aaron Gustafson was a semifinalist with research into acid rain’s impact on snails, Erik the national winner with research into acid rain’s effects on streams.
Aaron is now a Cornell sophomore, majoring in computer science. Erik will be an 11th-grader at Homer High School.
All of the Gustafson children have been active in 4-H as well as sports. Aaron also was a semifinalist in the international Ayn Rand Essay Competition as a senior.
To read this article and more, pick up today's Cortland Standard
Click here to subscribe