It all started with just a simple, mandatory science fair in eighth grade for Ralph Lawton. He did very well and it ended up opening his eyes to a whole new world in science.
Now, a sophomore at the PA Leadership Charter School University Scholars Program in West Chester, he achieved third place overall in engineering at the INTEL International Science and Engineering Fair held in Los Angeles May 11 through 16.
“It was awesome,” Lawton said. “It was a really busy week, but it was a great experience. I talked to a lot of cool people, made new friends and contacts and got a lot of ideas. It was just a lot of fun.”
His project, entitled “A PEEK into the Future: Advanced Materials for Orthopedic Implants,” has been ongoing for two years. His inspiration behind it was his father, who was involved in a car accident roughly 20 years ago.
“He was in a head-on collision and he broke both his legs,” Lawton said. “Now, he’s 48 and he has lost 90 percent of the cartilage in both his ankles. Two years ago when I started the project, I was looking into other options for ankles.”
Because ankles are one of the most complicated joints in the human body, Lawton instead switched the focus to the knee.
The idea of his project is to customize knee implants to the person using a 3-D printed PEEK (PolyEtherEtherKetone). He designed and printed a simpler version of the knee implant and tested it for durability.
Using money he had won in previous science fairs, Lawton, an Avondale native, funded his own research for this project, scoured the internet and spoke with professors at the University of Delaware to gain more knowledge and insight.
Using the same project, he took first place honors at the Chester County Science Fair and at the Delaware Valley Science Fairs to send him to the international level in Los Angeles.
“Most of Eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland (take part at the Delaware Valley fair),” Lawton said. “There, I won overall in my grade and division, so I got to go to the International Fair.”
The pressure was on for Lawton as he joined over 1,700 other high school students from 70 different countries, regions and territories at the huge, week-long event.
In his category alone, he was up against nearly 100 others and was able to come away with the third-place ribbon – something unheard of for an underclassman.
It didn’t come easy, though, as each participant went through long days and were sometimes questioned relentlessly about their research and findings.
“The judges read all the reports before,” Lawton said. “You have seven judges and they all have 15-minute blocks for questions they have about your project. You need to prove to them you did (the project) yourself. That’s the biggest challenge most people face.
“(Judges for) special awards will also come by. I was interviewed about 30 times.”
Lawton will take what he learned from the experience and use it to better prepare himself for a hopeful return next year and even down the road as he hopes to one day find a career in the scientific field.
“The research was a lot of fun,” Lawton said. “There are a bunch of things I want to be, but I’m not really sure yet – maybe a doctor or a hard science of some sort or an engineer.”