How Tragedy Bred an Award-Winning Student Scientist

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Rachel.Davis
What would you grab first if your house was on fire?

That question is usually asked to determine a person's values and priorities. The typical response is, "I would grab my violin," or "I would get my grandfather's old photos." I can tell you what you'd actually do: You wouldn't grab anything.

When I first heard the smoke alarm in my house one January day five years ago, I thought my mom had burned something. I didn't move. I continued doing my middle school homework.

Before I knew it, I was in the backyard watching my dad holding a frozen hose and my mom and sister trying to find a way out as flames flew up the stairs of the deck on which they were stranded. Then the firemen came. Besides my jacketless clothes and shoeless feet, I had no possessions. Hours later, my home was a smoking shell.

Since then, I’ve dedicated my studies and volunteer time to doing everything I can to prevent this scenario from happening to others. Last November, I became the first nationally certified volunteer firefighter in the Nissequogue, New York Fire Department, where I’m one of the only female members. I’m not the best at fighting fires, but I move when I hear my pager go off and I’m in full gear in less than two minutes, ready to help in any way I can.

Like firefighting, women are underrepresented in science fields. But thanks to encouragement from women like my Smithtown High School East science teacher, Maria Zeitlin-Trinkle, and Miriam Rafailovich, director of the Garcia Materials Research Science and Engineering Centerprogram at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, I've developed an interest in materials science and engineering. Ms. Zeitlin-Trinkle encouraged me to participate in the Garcia MRSEC program after I told her about my interest in preventing fires through developing flame-retardant materials. Dr. Rafailovich became my science research mentor, and working with her showed me the importance of educators mentoring girls in science fields. I am inspired by these incredible women to push forward in society and overcome as a minority in engineering.

Thanks to my fire training, I know that if I don’t wear full firefighting gear with a self-contained breathing apparatus, I will die—if not from the flames and heat, then from the toxic fumes given off by burning materials. I’ve also learned that some materials, like gas tanks in some cars, are constructed of flammable plastic. I decided to research non-toxic biodegradable flame retardants that would stop a fire from spreading while also giving victims a better chance to escape since there would be no toxic fumes to kill them.

I developed a new, non-toxic material that can be used in industrial packaging and utilized a novel method that can be applied to various other plastics, increasing the safety of materials everywhere. I wrote a paper about how I developed these plastics and submitted it to the Intel Science Talent Search competition last November, just two days before my final firefighter exam. Because this was my first year doing real research in an engineering laboratory and competing in large contests, I did not expect to win.

In January, I received the phone call that changed my life.  The Society for Science & the Public called me while I was at a school event and informed me that I was a finalist in the competition.

I’ve turned my family’s tragedy into a success by bringing to light the issues involved with materials and fire safety. In my firefighter training, I learned that my goal is to protect lives and property. I may not be the strongest or most experienced firefighter, but I can still make a difference and protect those things—and I can do that through science. I’ve been accepted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I’ll start as a freshman this fall.

So, what would I grab now if my house was on fire? My answer is still the same: Nothing. I have the knowledge and skills to make a difference, and that's all I need.