Western Albemarle High School junior Caitlin Dutta discusses her science fair project. Dutta was one of two Grand Prize winners from Albemarle County.

Albemarle County Public Schools’ science students know their stuff, and they have 84 awards to prove it.

At the 33rd Annual Piedmont Regional Science Fair last week, students from Albemarle, Western Albemarle, and Monticello high schools captured 75 percent of all first-place awards, which translates to 12 in 16 categories.

“What is so significant about these students is the passion they bring to their research,” said Jeff Prillaman, Director of Albemarle’s Math, Engineering & Science Academy.

Albemarle sophomore Selena Feng and Western Albemarle junior Caitlin Dutta both won Best in Show Grand Awards.

Selena’s project, “I Click: The Development of a Practical Vision Based Virtual Mouse,” demonstrated touch-screen technology that can replace a computer mouse.

Dutta’s research, “The Effect of a New Long Non-Coding RNA 2953 on Muscle Creation,” which took one year to complete, analyzed genetics to foster healthy cell growth.

Dutta’s research showed that 2953 prohibits muscle growth, and that it be turned off by using what are called small interfering RNA.

This discovery could lead to patients living healthier lives.

For example, Caitlin’s RNA research could help people with muscular dystrophy, who are experiencing atrophy, or the elderly.

Dutta got the idea from watching other scientists work on long non-coding RNA in her father’s molecular biology and genetics lab at the University of Virginia.

“2953 had been discovered, people knew that it was in muscle, but no one knew what it was doing,” Dutta said, noting that since she now knows what 2953 does, the next phase of her research is to figure out how it works.

Monticello High School student Kelly Bao also won a first-place prize in chemistry for her examination of free radicals in cooking oil.

“These are not garden-variety science projects. They represent out-of-the-box ideas that can solve real-world problems, and they lend themselves to practical application,” Prillaman added. “The expanse of intellectual vigor these students have developed and demonstrated simply is overwhelming.”

Carol Stutzman, who oversees Western Albemarle’s Science Fair exhibits, agreed.

“The sophistication of the goals these students have set for themselves is beyond impressive,” Stutzman said.

“All three of our first-place winners focused on projects that can save lives, dealing with long-time medical conditions that threaten public health. The discipline, focus and research that went into these exhibits offer a powerful statement about the ability of our next generation of leaders to enhance the quality of our lives,” Stutzman added.

Selena and Caitlin’s work has qualified them for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles, where 1,600 finalists from about 7 million student science fair projects will compete.