Young Texas Science Fair Champion Shows True Passion for Learning

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Nearly 1,150 of the best and brightest young science and engineering minds from across the state displayed their projects at the 30th Annual Texas Science and Engineering Fair on April 2, 2016. The fair, which was hosted by The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), is co-sponsored by the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) and ExxonMobil.

The senior division Best-of-Show was awarded to Syamantak Payra of Clear Brook High School in Friendswood who presented a project on “Brace Yourself: A Novel Electronically Aided Leg Orthosis.” Last May, Payra attended the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Phoenix and was named the ISEF Young Scientist Award winner where he received a $50,000 prize. Payra also attended the Texas Governor’s Science and Technology Champions Academy, a weeklong residential summer camp, also sponsored by TWC, which was held at Texas A&M University in June.

Payra recently provided some insight into what inspired him to get into studying science and why he took part in TXSEF, ISEF and the Texas Governor’s Science and Technology Champions Academy.

  • How did you first become interested in science?
    • I think I grew up with science all around me, without ever realizing that it was, actually, science. I loved cars and machines and reading about how things work, and I got an optics and magnetism set for Christmas once – I think I was in kindergarten that year. My first-grade teacher did crazy science experiments with us all the time, from ketchup-packet buoyancy to CD diffraction gratings, and she urged us to take part in the school science fair. Once I did, I was hooked, and I’ve participated every year since then. In fact, this year was my fourth year in a row competing at the Texas State Science and Engineering Fair. I just remember always having a feeling of excitement and wonder at learning things through experimentation.
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  • What did you enjoy most in taking part in the Texas Science and Engineering Fair?
    • There are many rewarding aspects of participating in science fairs. To start with, you can get really helpful feedback and suggestions from judges that can look from perspectives you had never thought of before. Then, there are many interesting conversations to be had with other students and new knowledge and ideas gained from their projects. Finally, it’s always exciting and enriching to be part of an atmosphere of innovation and discovery like that in a science fair.
  • Your science fair project was such a unique idea. How did you think of it?
    • Sometime last summer, I was talking with a family friend and he happened to be complaining about chronic back pain. I knew he had had polio as a child, but I learned that he had lost almost all of the muscle in his left leg and some in his right, and has to wear leg braces to be able to stand or walk. When I asked, he described how conventional braces lock the knee joint to prevent collapse, but when healthy people walk, they bend their knee – something he can’t do, and he has to do awkward, painful movements with the rest of his body to make up for it. Initially, I had started looking for a better brace for him to buy, but when I realized that the alternatives on the market are ridiculously expensive and don’t actually help the patient walk, I decided I would try my hand at the problem and make a retrofit to the conventional brace, that could detect his walking and bend his leg just like his muscles would have.
  • What has life been like after winning at ISEF?
    • I feel really blessed to have been recognized for my work; it’s great to have the validation from scientific experts that what I’m doing is on the right path. Other than that, things have been quite the same. I guess if it was senior year, I’d be getting a break, but junior year’s coming up and there’s lots of work to do, even during the summer.
  • You recently attended the Governors Champions Academy. What did you enjoy most from your experience?
    • This was my second year at the Governor’s Champions Academy, and I really enjoyed the fact that we went to completely different labs and got to interact with a whole different set of faculty and students. It was lots of fun to learn, play, and interact with other like-minded students from all across the state. In addition, it was good to get a slightly more in-depth view of behind-the-scenes workings in labs through various departments at a university than what most high-school kids would be able to see.

Learn more about TWC-supported programs that encourage students to participate in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in order to promote pursuit of careers and educations in these in-demand fields. The Texas Science and Engineering Fair is also seeking judges for the 2017 Science Fair on April 1, 2017 in San Antonio.