LAHS student wins top physics prize

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By Kirsten Laskey

She went to Atlanta as a state champion, but Los Alamos High School student Caroline Wurden left an international winner.

Wurden, who will be a senior in the fall, competed in the International Science and Engineering Fair held May 11-16. Her project, “Great Balls of Fire,” was awarded first place in the physics and astronomy division, and best of category in physics and astronomy.

As a result, Wurden received $3,000 and an asteroid named after her for the first place prize, and $5,000 and a new computer for earning the best of category.

The money, she said, will go toward college.

“It felt awesome,” Wurden said. “It was a little unexpected.”

She added she was “really excited and happy.”

During the international fair, Wurden said she competed against 65 students in her category. There were 17 different categories featured in the fair.

Alexander Kendrick, an incoming sophomore at LAHS, competed in the engineering division.

The International Science and Engineering Fair is the largest pre-college science competition, annually providing a forum for more than 1,500 high school students from more than 40 countries to showcase their independent research. Students in ninth grade through 12th grade participated in the event.

Wurden’s “Great Balls of Fire” examined a rare, natural phenomenon, called ball lightning. She described ball lighting as a “big, glowing ball of plasma.”

Her project has garnered several other awards beside the ones Wurden earned at the international fair. “Great Balls of Fire” also received first place and the grand prize at the state fair, held April 4-5 in Socorro.

“Great Balls of Fire” made the trip to the international fair last year, too, where it earned her an $8,000 U.S. Navy scholarship, and was awarded second place in the physics category.

Returning to the international competition was a lot of fun, Wurden said, in part because she was able to meet a lot of people from around the world.

Through this experience, Wurden said she learned how to hone in on her communication skills by speaking to the judges and talking to students who live outside the U.S.

“It’s a great way to meet people,” she said.

One of the highlights of the fair, Wurden said, is the pin exchange. She explained students distribute pins representing their own countries. During an interview with the Monitor, Wurden showed the lanyards heavily decorated with pins from Great Britain, South Africa, Germany, Puerto Rico, India, Jordan, Israel, Japan and other countries.

She said she has collected more than 300 pins.

“It’s a cool way to remember the fair,” Wurden said, adding, “We had such a great time. International, just in of itself, is awesome. I totally want to go next year.”

But she will not return with “Great Balls of Fire.”

“I think I’m done,” Wurden said, explaining there isn’t much else she can do with the project.

Although this particular project is being retired, Wurden said “ I like my project; I think its cool.”

What Wurden will bring to science fair next year remains to be determined.

“I just got done with this one,” she said, “I’m giving myself a break.”