LOWER PROVIDENCE — Have you ever contemplated the ways that social conformity affects your virtual interactions with your peers?
Probably not, but a Methacton High School 11th grader put a lot of thought into the concept, meticulously documented the results and won herself a prize at the Delaware Valley Science Fair competition.
Irene Biju’s project entitled “Mental Health in the U.S. Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic” won third place in the prestigious competition earlier this year.
Taking a psychological approach was a detour from her usual realm of expertise, Biju said.
“I’ve been doing the Science Fair since eighth grade and usually doing something with chemistry. But this year it was difficult to do anything like that because I would have to do it at home. I was planning on working in a biology or chemistry lab for a hands-on project but I wasn’t able to do that this year,” she explained. “I do like learning about different areas of science.”
Biju said she liked the idea of exploring a project centered on the pandemic.
“I really wanted to do something with COVID and I was told a good project would be doing something with statistics. My project was basically all about statistics and I didn’t have to do anything physical. I could do it all on my computer.”
In retrospect, a psychology class she’d taken at school planted the seed for “Mental Health in the U.S. Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Biju noted.
“I found it absolutely fascinating how far we’ve come in our understanding of human behavior. Therefore, I knew that I wanted to conduct an experiment in the behavioral sciences field.”
As Biju explained to the judges in her video for the project, “I thought about the world situation. So much of the world has been forced to transition online and to change from regular, so I wondered, have any influences on behavior changed as a result of being virtual?”
Before long, she determined that most of the expected changes would have been on a social level.
Using data from the CDC, the COVID Tracking Project and other public data sites, Biju compiled statistics for anxiety levels during the pandemic and explored the outcomes
“I used statistical analysis software called Stata to look at trends,” she said. “My brother is in medical school and he uses that a lot, so he suggested I use it for my project. I wouldn’t have access to it but he does because he’s a student.”
In addition to the Delaware Valley Science Fair recognition, Biju was awarded a special cash prize from the American Statistic Association for her making use of statistics.
According to the organization’s background, Delaware Valley Science Fairs, Inc. is a forum for middle and high school students “to display scientific research and engineering projects that they have completed. The purpose of the Fairs is to connect these hard-working and inventive young minds with professionals in their fields. During the fair, the competitors will be interviewed and have their research evaluated. The primary goals are that the students will gain some insight into new directions for their research, learn new ways of thinking, and, in some cases, be connected with people who could help bring a potential product to market. All of this takes the form of a competition with winners receiving recognition, scholarships, and monetary prizes, as well as a chance to compete in the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair.”
Delaware Valley Science Fair Judge Malcolm Burgess said the best way to describe Biju’s project is “very elegant. It’s refreshing to see young minds tackling scientific research with such gusto. In the early stages, it’s hard to put your thought process together producing an experiment that is very simple and easy to understand but has a scientific element to it.”
Burgess, a Pennsylvania resident and a Delaware Valley Science Fair judge since 2005, said Biju’s idea of looking to see if having a virtual setting changes the way people experience their social circle was an interesting concept.
“I imagine the results that she got were a little different than the results she thought she was going to get,” he said. “A lot of people think that a good scientific project has to be sort of heavy in theory or complicated, but the scientific method requires clarity of purpose and simple execution and evaluation of the data and reasoning some conclusions from that data. So, in that respect, this project really checked all the boxes.”
In her brief video, Burgess noted that Biju’s ebullience and enthusiasm really came through.
“She was bubbly and you can see this is something she enjoyed doing,” he noted. “That’s the thing that always stimulates people to follow a career.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Biju is not anticipating studying psychology in college.
“I plan to focus on computer science and political science in college,” she said.