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A Super Science Project

 Super Science Project
New Jersey teen is first African American student to win prestigious competition
By Eleanor Lee Yates

Juliet Girard sounds a lot like the girl next door. Friendly. Perky. Chatty. But Girard is not the girl next door. A senior at William Dickinson High School in Jersey City, N.J., Girard recently won the Siemens Westinghouse Competition for a science project that would do any graduate school researcher proud. She and her fellow school partner, Roshan Prabhu, identified the gene in rice that controls its flowering time. The discovery can lead to more harvests in shorter time in dryer climates. The project could mean more people in impoverished nations having more to eat.

Girard and Prabhu won the team division of the contest and will divide the $100,000 college scholarship money. Girard is the first African American to win the prestigious contest, which annually spotlights some of the country’s brightest high school science projects.

Always a good student, Girard was drawn to science early on. One influence was Bill Nye, the Science Guy on TV. Because of her grades, she qualified to attend a magnet high school for high achievers. William Dickinson High School has a strong science research program.

One of Girard’s teachers and the director of the science research magnet calls her “a superwoman.”

“She has such keen intelligence. She was in my power group of students who came in at 7 a.m. to get to work,” says Michael Corcoran. She stood out even among talented students who had honed their expertise from many summers of science camp. Girard’s grade point average is 99.5. She has never made below an A in school. She is editor of her school newspaper, a member of the National Honor Society, the Science Research Club, Key Club International and the Drama Club. Girard has participated in the National Junior Science and Humanities Symposium, the New Jersey Biomedical Symposium and other events.

Corcoran says Girard is extremely dedicated and extraordinarily thorough. She reads all the literature for a project. “Many students don’t want to do that,” he says.

He considers Girard socially conscious, a trait reflected in her choice of research projects.

Last year, Girard received a summer internship through the NASA Sharp Plus program which allowed her to be an intern at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. There she became more interested in researching plants.

“I was always interested in genetics,” she says. One of her past projects was exploring ways to use plant enzymes to increase production of vanilla beans and making the process less expensive. Because of the expense, most vanilla used today is imitation flavored.

“I worked on a project mapping genes that control how early a plant flowers,” she recalls.

Through her research she discovered how to breed wild rice with genes to make it flower earlier and increase production. Corcoran encouraged Girard to enter the project in the Siemens Westinghouse competition. She teamed up with Prabhu, who had worked on a similar project during his summer internship. The students have mentors to guide them along the way but they are judged on their original work.

This year over 1,100 high school students competed as individuals and teams in the Siemens competition, according to Herb Carter, executive vice president of the Siemens Foundation. National judges pare down the best entries in six regions without knowing the race, age and sex of the contestants.

Then regional competitions are held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Texas, Notre Dame and the University of California at Berkeley.

In December, the finalists faced off in a national competition. Corcoran thought all along that Girard’s project was special, and he had a good feeling about it. Still, there was plenty of tough competition.

When her name was called out, Girard was on top of the world. Her parents, David and Rosalind Girard, a UPS driver and a cashier, respectively, have not stopped bragging about their daughter. Girard soon faced a round of interviews on CNN, BET and several other national media outlets. She handled the interviews with aplomb, Corcoran says.

Girard plans to attend Cornell, Harvard, MIT or perhaps the University of Chicago, studying biochemistry, molecular biology and environmental science. Her plans also include graduate school. Corcoran bets Girard will end up being a researcher.

“Wherever I go, I want diversity. That’s important to me,” Girard says.

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