Oceanside High School seniors move on to international science fair

A magnified image of advanced microchip material that Kristian Nilsen helped manufacture.
A magnified image of advanced microchip material that Kristian Nilsen helped manufacture.
Courtesy Kristian Nilsen

“It’s been a good year,” said Oceanside High School Research Coordinator Heather Hall. Over the last eight months, three of her researchers have earned national awards in as many competitions. Now, two of them are headed to the international level.

After competing at the New York Science and Engineering Fair in Queens on April 2, OHS seniors Sarah Romanelli and Kristian Nilsen were named International Science and Engineering Fair finalists and will head to Los Angeles next month to compete against the best student science research projects in the world.

“It actually took me a second to realize,” Nilsen said recalling the moment when he grasped that he was going to the California competition. Nilsen was standing on stage at the New York Hall of Science — where the fair was held — after making it through a three-minute lightning round presentation. It was then that the judges announced he had won first place in the field of physical science, which qualified him for the international fair.

For his project, Nilsen spent two summers at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering developing less expensive manufacturing methods for the high-tech materials used in microchips. The materials are currently too expensive for commercial electronics, but his findings may change that.

The biggest surprise, however, came when Romanelli’s research — which also made her a Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology semifinalist in October — was announced last as Best in Fair for life sciences. While Nilsen had to fight for his first-place spot in the lightning round against other projects, hers was considered so exemplary, that she skipped that step altogether. “Best in Fair was unheard of for us,” said Hall. “So yeah, it was a great surprise.”

Romanelli researched alternative treatments for relapsed leukemia patients who have shown resistance to chemotherapy at Columbia University. She is also involved in the performing arts, and she was inspired to work on the project after a fellow actor left a play she was doing to undergo leukemia treatment.

Hall has been working with Nilsen since he was in eighth grade. “It’s been amazing to see him mature emotionally and academically,” she said. “He doesn’t do it for the accolades; he does things because he’s passionate.”

When speaking to the Herald, Nilsen was excited about his work, especially since it has direct, real-world applications. “A lot of the times you do research to improve more research — it’s like a loop,” he explained. “But this has potential to be integrated in consumer electronics in the long run.”

He said he was particularly happy that he had found success in an area where full-fledged scientists could spend years struggling. “Typically, for people involved it can be very, very tricky to get right,” he said of the process of developing manufacturing techniques for new materials, which can be impacted by environmental factors.

Nilsen added that he was lucky to find a process that worked in such a short time. The scientists at New York University are still working with his technique, he said, building on its potential to have a real-world application.

Nilsen said he would like to attend Washington University, in St. Louis, in the fall, and plans to join either the Army or Air Force ROTC. He hopes to work as a military engineer for a few years before going to graduate school.

Besides science, Romanelli has been part of 34 stage productions, and is co-president of OHS’s Thespian Troupe No. 132. “I love performing,” she said. But she sees her future in medicine. She would like to be a doctor — specifically, a pediatric oncologist. “I think that would have more of an impact on people,” she said.

Romanelli enjoys the challenge of balancing activities. “I like what I’m doing in terms of research,” she said, attributing her work ethic to a combination of good parenting and her experience in theater, which she said helped her learn discipline.

While she doesn’t plan to abandon theater, she’s realistic about the prospect of becoming a professional. “One in a million actually make it to be a stage performer,” she said.

Most recently, she earned a Town of Hempstead’s Pathfinder Award for her talents and accomplishments. She has been accepted by Northeastern University, but wants to hear from other institutions before making a final decision about college.

Regardless of where her students end up or what they decide to do, Hall said she has just one hope for them: “I hope that they give back to society in whatever way that makes them the happiest.”