It wasn’t the easiest thing, driving to Butte from Baker with three students for the Montana Tech Regional Science and Engineering Fair.

It’s been a brutal winter in Baker, and all the roads out of town were closed before Linda Rost and her students finally managed to get out. The trip, normally about seven hours, took more than 11 hours.

But for Rost, it was worth every white-knuckle minute.

Casey Wyrwas' victory at the Montana Tech Regional Science and Engineering Fair means the teen from Baker will go to an international science fair in Pittsburgh in May. David McCumber, The Montana Standard

One of her students, Casey Wyrwas, won the Grand First Place Award at the science fair for with his project, “Effects of the Known Endocrine Disruptor Pyriproxyfen Compared to the Suspected Endocrine Disruptors Bisphenol-A (BPA) and Bisphenol-S (BPS) on Blaptica dubia Roaches.”

That means the budding scientist will get an expenses-paid trip to Pittsburgh to present the project at the International Science and Engineering Fair.

It’s a huge gold star on his resume.

Rost will accompany him to Pittsburgh; it’s the third time the science teacher in the tiny town has taken a student to the big show.

Why did Wyrwas use tropical roaches as the test subjects for his project?

“People don’t like thinking about this, but among invertebrates, roaches have the most similarities with humans,” he said matter-of-factly. “Their organs react the same way ours do to some chemicals. We call them human analogs.”

Well, okay then.

Wyrwas credited Montana Tech biosciences professor Dr. Marisa Pedulla for helping him structure his project with a "positive control," a known endocrine disruptor, against which to compare the chemicals he tested.

Nevertheless, Wyrwas is Montana State-bound.

He did consider both Tech and the University of Montana. But he said his mom laid down the law.

“She said MSU’s the closest to home, and that’s where I’m going to go,” he said with a sheepish grin.

“They have a bunch of brand-new, state of the art lab equipment,” he added. “And they have this program where I can go out and do research when I’m a senior instead of going to classes.” 

The Grand Second Place Award was won by Sophia Richter of Hellgate High School, for her project titled Wolbachia Effects on the Fecundity of Drosophila mauritiana.

She also won a trip to the Pittsburgh fair.

Mention the words “petroleum engineering” and Aidan Anderson’s face lights up like a neon sign.

There’s not too much question about the Mead, Colo., student’s career path.

“I really liked working with my dad when I was younger on mechanical stuff,” he said, “and I always wondered where all the motor oil we used came from.”

Anderson is well on the way to finding out. His project, “The Chemical Characterization of Oil Samples Around Geothermal Hotspots in the Denver-Julesburg Basin,” compared oil with geothermal heat signatures and found that oil from wells near geothermal features tends to be of higher quality.

He’s certainly giving Montana Tech a look. “I worked with Anadarko on my project and a lot of their engineers went to school at Tech,” Anderson said.

“The enthusiasm these high school students have for their research is very evident and inspirational,” said Bernie Phelps, director of the science fair. “They are creative, inventive and unwilling to accept what others might call impossibilities. The projects this year were very impressive.”

“Montana Tech is proud to live up to its obligation of fostering and advancing the scientific interests of area youth,” said Amy Verlanic, who is executive director of the Institute for Educational Opportunities at Tech.

Some students choose their projects for very personal reasons.

Hannah Wolff of Missoula's Sentinel High chose a project dealing with the creek that runs by her grandparents' home. David McCumber, The Montana Standard

Hannah Wolff, a junior at Sentinel High School in Missoula, is planning on studying aeronautical engineering in college at MSU. But her science fair project was much closer to the earth.

She decided to study the fish populations of tiny Grant Creek, a Clark Fork tributary that flows past her grandparents’ home.

“When I sat in the stream collecting my water samples, it felt right,” she said. “I was at home, and I care about this stream.”

Similarly homegrown was the project of Jaden Comings, a senior at Granite County High School in Philipsburg. “A better biodiesel for cold climates” came from the direct experience of her family with biodiesel that didn’t work well at cold temperatures.

That paid off, big time.

Comings was awarded the Montana Tech Gold Access Scholarship – a $7,000 boost to her college plans.