RICHLAND -- Swetha Shutthanandan said she's always been interested in how she could save the world.
"When I was in elementary school and they were telling us about global warming, I started to think about what I could do about that," said the 15-year-old freshman from Richland High School.
She could be on her way to helping with those problems after taking top prizes this spring at the Mid-Columbia Science and Engineering Fair and the Washington State Science and Engineering Fair with her project on an alternative form of solar cells.
Fair officials and family members said it had been 25 years since a freshman won the regional competition and Swetha's two wins more than qualified her for the weeklong International Science and Engineering Fair in Arizona that began Sunday.
But they are all seeking more than a win at the competition. They hope Swetha's success will motivate other students to pursue the challenge of a science fair project and jumpstart more careers in science.
"Doing a science fair project is just like doing real research," said Larry Chick, a scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory who oversaw judging at the regional science fair. "It's where I got my feet wet."
Swetha's project was based on research looking into alternative materials for solar power generation, specifically those using a zinc-oxide compound. The material is cheaper than the silicon currently used in many solar panels and more flexible.
She used the material to make a variety of solar cells, each with different interior structures, to see which would be better at converting solar power to electrical power.
Her father, Shuttha Shutthanandan, also a scientist at PNNL, advised her and helped her work out the methodology.
"They're not as efficient (as silicon solar cells), but we're working on it," Swetha said.
Chick said he only had a chance to look at Swetha's work but other judges said early on she was clearly a contender for one of the grand prizes for the regional fair.
"I sent a couple of judges over to look at it and they said, 'Wow, I think we better look at it,' " Chick recalled. Swetha went on to win one of two grand prizes in the event's senior division.
About 270 students from the sixth grade up through high school entered the regional fair.
He said he and other science fair and science education supporters would love to see that number grow, but many things compete for kids' attention.
"Kids are very busy," he said, noting he's mentored Tri-City students and encouraged their participation with limited success.
Swetha said many students also are intimidated by the amount of work that goes into a science fair project. She said it did take some time, but she said she learned a lot from doing it.
"I'm just a freshman but I think it's a great experience," she said.
And that's why Chick and others said they hope other students take inspiration from Swetha because there is a great need for people interested in science.
"If people see you can do well and have success, it will motivate people to do (science) more and more," said her father.