Zoe Gotthold is fascinated by penguins.
Since she was 6 years old, the birds have captured her attention. She read books, collected information, even picked up the bassoon because — at least to her — it looks like a penguin.
So it’s no surprise that the science project that earned her a trip to Washington, D.C. focuses on the dangers that threaten her beloved birds.
In this case it’s from oil trapped in pockets under the water’s surface, called emulsions. Gotthold learned about the phenomenon when reading one of her books about penguins, The Great Penguin Rescue: 40,000 Penguins, a Devastating Oil Spill and the Inspiring Story of the World’s Largest Animal Rescue.
The book details the story of the ore carrier M.V. Treasure, which sank in 2000 off the coast of South Africa, spilling more than 1,300 tons of oil into the sea. Much of the damage to wildlife was caused by emulsions.
Along with poisoning the birds, Gotthold said, the oil can cause a penguin’s feathers to separate and allow the ocean’s cold to seep in, leaving the bird to freeze to death.
Gotthold, an eighth grader at Carmichael Middle School at the time, was motivated to study these deadly clumps of oil that can hide below the water’s surface.
And a science project was born. Her goal was simple: figure out how long an emulsion would stay stable under water.
I made lots and lots of graphs. Graphs are really one of my favorite things.
To do that, she grabbed some canola oil, made some tinted water and began conducting tests looking for a factor that would predict how long the blob of oil would stick together.
“Some of these emulsions will only last for a couple hours, and some will last for longer,” she said.
She devised a series of tests that she conducted in January and February, often coming home from classes in time to conduct another experiment.
“I made lots and lots of graphs,” she said. “Graphs are really one of my favorite things.”
She took her project to the Mid-Columbia Science Fair last March, where she placed second and earned a chance to apply for the Broadcom MASTERS. The national event was founded seven years ago by the Society for Science and the Public.
She applied the past two years, but hadn’t earned a spot. Then last week she got a phone call.
“It was this weird number from Virginia. We all knew the announcement came out on Tuesday,” she said. “I didn’t stop thinking about it all night — or jumping up and down.”
The 30 students selected for the national event all competed in a middle school science fair, but Gotthold is the sole candidate coming from Washington.
Officials called Gotthold’s methods novel, pointing out that she developed her own tools for testing the thickness of the emulsion.
“You just need to be a little creative and really understand how different machines work,” she said.
Michele Glidden, the chief program officer for the society, said the competitors were picked based on how well they mastered their subject matter.
After presenting their projects to a panel that include educators, scientists and engineers, the students will break into teams of five to present for other activities.
All of the finalists receive $500, and the trip to Washington, D.C. is paid for. There are several different scholarships up for grabs, ranging from $2,500 to $25,000.
Gotthold, now a freshman at Richland High School, plans to turn her love of science into a career in biomedical engineering.