LAFAYETTE -- Blake Marggraff and Matthew Feddersen have been friends since fourth grade, and showed a proclivity early on for figuring out the scientific order of things.
"I would always go to (Blake's) house and we'd do random experiments," said Feddersen, 17, now a senior at Acalanes High School in Lafayette. "It was a lot of fun blowing things up "... but I asked, 'How did that work, how did that happen?' "
The two grew up loving science, and both said their schools in particular -- Dorris-Eaton in Walnut Creek, and then Acalanes -- and the community in general provided strong support and encouragement to follow their scientific bliss. This year, the two found themselves in Jay Chugh's accelerated biotechnology class, where for six weeks this spring they ran an experiment trying to isolate and kill simulated cancerous tumors (yeast cells substituting for cancer cells) using a technique they developed.
The pair's experiment/exhibit, "Simulated Treatment of Cancer with Photoelectric Effect-Produced Secondary Radiation," took "Best in Fair" honors at the Contra Costa County Science & Engineering Fair held March 1 through April 2 at Los Medanos College in Pittsburg.
Then, the exhibit won the top prize at the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair held in Los Angeles May 9-13. An international judging team gave Marggraff and Feddersen the top prize in Health & Medicine and the Intel Innovation Award. For their efforts, the pair received the Gordon E. Moore Award, a $75,000 prize in honor of the Intel co-founder and retired chairman and CEO.
"It's sort of like winning a Nobel Prize for what they've done," said Courtney Corda, vice president of the local nonprofit Science Buddies and an organizer of the Contra Costa County Science & Engineering Fair. "It's quite a badge of honor for Contra Costa County."
In basic terms, a key element of Marggraff's and Feddersen's experiment to kill simulated cancer cells involves using a heavy metal -- tin, in this case -- to create "secondary radiation" they believed could better isolate the cancerous tumor cells to be killed, and spare other cells around it.
Marggraff, 18, said the pair hit upon that idea about five months ago, having read about various metals' effects on X-rays, and began their experiment in Chugh's classroom. Though Chugh's students sometimes collaborate with outside scientists or other sources on experiments, Marggraff and Feddersen did all their own research on this one.
"We were doing it for the process, for the love of science," said Chugh, who's been at Acalanes for eight years. "It was authentic science; there were failures, and these two handled the failures well.
"But we're grateful this worked out so well. In science you tinker and start over and adjust, and sometimes it doesn't work out (at all)," Chugh said.
Marggraff said a key in getting judges to support their project was, "We went beyond concept; we developed a technique to quantify cell deaths," a key to eradicating cancerous tumors, he said. The two have applied for a patent of their work on this project.
A week after returning from the Intel fair in Los Angeles, Feddersen said he is still overwhelmed by the whole experience.
"People have been congratulating us, saying 'Good job,' there's definitely a 'rock star' feel about it," he said. "We're still on Cloud 9, wondering when we're going to come down."
Chugh said Marggraff's and Feddersen's work and awards can only boost what has already been a strong Acalanes science program, through which he has seen many gifted students pass.
"Future students can learn that if you put in the time and the energy, good things can happen," he said.
April Treece, director of the Contra Costa County Science & Engineering Fair, said science programs all over can use the boost projects and recognition like Marggraff's and Feddersen's international competition success can give.
"We're concerned about the pipeline of students going into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) pursuits; we need more of them in cutting-edge sciences," Treece said.
The boys will graduate shortly, and head off to separate universities -- Marggraff to Washington University in St. Louis, Feddersen to the University of Illinois. But they plan to keep doing this research together, Feddersen said. And, of course, good jobs almost certainly await.
Blake's father Jim Marggraff praised the schools' and community's support of his son and other young scientists, and that supporting can indeed reap big rewards. When his son was in sixth grade, Jim Marggraff built for his son a small chemistry lab in their back yard, where Blake and Matthew did many of their experiments. There were explosions, Jim Marggraff said, that while done with proper safety precautions and protocols, still rattled nerves sometimes.
The younger Marggraff concurred. "All those explosions that startled my mom "... she's happy now, now that it's all worked out."