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Tibbetts Middle School student competes for national science prize

Alex Bessinger competing for thousands of dollars in awards

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
Tibbetts Middle School eighth-grader Alex Bessinger displays the science project that helped her become a semifinalist in a national STEM competition.
  • Bessinger is one of 300 students from around the country named a Broadcom MASTER.
  • More than 3,400 students entered the competition.
  • The final round of winners will be announced Sept. 16.

FARMINGTON — Alex Bessinger is the first to admit she didn't always eat a very healthy diet.

"I used to really, really like junk food," the Tibbetts Middle School eighth-grader said, reciting her frequent consumption of pizza and ice cream, choices that likely mirrored the eating habits of many of her peers — and a good percentage of adults.

That all changed last summer when Bessinger got involved in her school's annual science fair. She researched and put together a project that identifies different types of sugars and how they correlate with perceptions of taste.

Bessinger said she was interested in researching a topic that was relevant to her community.

"I thought, 'Why not pick a subject related to diabetes and being obese?'" she said, referring to two health issues that have a significant presence in San Juan County.

Bessinger wound up doing a deep dive into the subject over several months, and her hard work paid off. Her project finished second in the school science fair in January, and won first place at the district competition and first place at the regional competition in March, just before the COVID-19 pandemic caused the cancellation of the state competition.

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But that wasn't the end for Bessinger's project. She was nominated for a national science, technology, engineering and math competition and decided to enter in late April. She said she had almost forgotten about it until Sept. 2, when she received word that she had been named one of the nation's premier middle school scientists in the country by the Broadcom Foundation, a California-based nonprofit organization that supports project-based STEM initiatives.

More than 3,400 students entered the competition, and only 300 — Bessinger among them — were named Broadcom MASTERS, which makes them semifinalists in the organization's national science competition. Bessinger has earned a $125 cash award from the Department of Defense and has moved on to the final round of competition, which offers several awards, including a $25,000 prize and four $10,000 awards.

Farmington's Alex Bessinger says she developed an affinity for science from her mother, a doctor, and her father, a mining engineer.

Regardless of what happens in the next round, Bessinger already figures she's come out a winner because of how her research led her to eat healthier. Because of what she learned while putting her project together, she has made a concerted effort to sharply reduce her consumption of junk food and other edibles, such as white bread, that she found were likely to leave her more susceptible later in life to cancer, diabetes or a stroke.

Instead, she has made a point of consuming more nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables, and she has begun using artificial sweeteners instead of sugar in her drinks. She said she has lost weight and feels much better since adapting her diet.

Bessinger's project is titled "How Sweet Is It? Does It Matter?" She tested several foods — honey, pasta sauce, Greek yogurt, grapes, sweet corn, watermelon, apple juice, even albacore tuna — for their sugar content and the type of sugar they contain. Bessinger also examined why some sugars are more appealing than others and the impact they have on the body.

The results convinced her to start making changes to her own diet, especially when she realized the impact many of those foods could have on her health. The problem, she acknowledged, is that processed foods generally taste better and are designed to be sweeter — something that our brains have been hardwired to respond to, she said. That explains why so many people eat a poor diet, even when healthier foods are widely available, she said.

Broadcom reported its most recently quarterly results after the markets closed on Thursday.

You don't have to look far to figure out how Bessinger became interested in science. Her mother, Dr. Ariadna Sadziene-Bessinger, is a doctor, and her father, Stephen Bessinger, is a mining engineer.

"I look up to my parents greatly," she said, also singling out her fifth-grade teacher, Kathi Maxey, for the way she encouraged her and other students to explore the world of science.

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Bessinger said her findings on this project have inspired her to become interested in other areas, including the functioning of the human endocrine system, specifically the pancreas. That means her project could be just a jumping-off point for additional research, rather than a stand-alone exploration, she said.

In the meantime, Bessinger said she has grown a little nervous as she awaits word from the next round of the Broadcom MASTERS competition. She's trying to keep her expectations in check but said she is still hoping for the best.

The 30 winners will be announced Sept. 16. Bessinger is excited about the possibility of claiming one of the grand prizes — she said she likely would save the money for college — but she's even more interested in the chance to participate in a seven-day online science program with the other finalists, as she is convinced that several potential new friends exist among that group.

"I will be very surprised and definitely be very happy," she said, referring to the possibility of winning. "I would really like to meet some other people who share my interests and hopefully expand my knowledge more."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.