Published February 5, 2004
Joseph Stunzi is a typical eighth-grade boy.
He likes computers. He plays the guitar. On a chilly January day in his science class when his teacher, Mary Partridge, asks him and a classmate to don safety goggles for an experiment, he giggles along with the rest of his fellow classmates.
And when he grows up, the St. Joseph School student wants to be a cardiac engineer, a cardiac surgeon and an electrophysiologist.
This typical 13-year-old has a not-so-typical love for learning. And it was this great quest to learn that earned Joseph the distinction of the Discovery Channel’s “America’s Top Young Scientist of the Year” award.
Joseph won first place for his original science project, “The Effects of Cell Phones on Pacemaker Patients’ Hearts,” as well as for the skills he demonstrated during the Discovery Channel’s Young Scientist Challenge National Competition in Washington, D.C., specifically his leadership, teamwork, scientific problem solving, critical thinking, and oral and written communication skills.
The award earned him national recognition and a $15,000 scholarship to the college of his choice.
Joseph said that the honor was a surprise. After competing for a week in October 2003 in Washington, he was able to get to know other students and their projects.
“There were a couple of other people I really thought were going to win,” he said. “When they called my name it was a big shock.”
Joseph’s project idea came from a personal experience. His mother has a pacemaker, and he noticed that when his father, who works for Mitsubishi electronics, would talk on his cell phone, his mother’s heart rate was visibly affected. However, his grandfather, who also has a pacemaker, did not feel an increase in his heart rate.
“I wanted to find out why my mother was affected and my grandfather wasn’t,” he said.
Joseph had to travel to Atlanta to work with patients at Emory’s Arrhythmia Center.
To test the participants, Joseph ensured that each one sat in the same position. A pacemaker technician took a regular electrocardiogram recording.
Joseph then turned on an analog cell phone and positioned it 3 inches to the right of the heart and 3 inches to the left of the heart. Each time, an EKG recording was conducted. He followed the same procedure with a digital cell phone. Finally, he asked the participants a few survey questions. Joseph concluded that the digital phone affected participants more than the analog phone and that pacemakers implanted after the year 2000 were less affected overall.
Partridge, who encouraged Joseph to enter the competition, said that the entire school was behind him, while he competed in Washington. Joseph, who has his own Web site design company and has been designing sites since the fourth grade, updated his own Web page during the competition.
“I kept thinking, ‘I don’t know, he might do well,’” Partridge said. “Everyone checked his Web site every day. I was in the middle of teaching my sixth-grade class, when (the principal) Sister Mary (Glackin, IHM) came to tell me that he had won. The two of us went back and forth from squealing to crying. We’d squeal then cry then squeal and cry. It was really wonderful.”
Joseph has always loved science and math because they are “difficult and challenging and always progressing forward,” but he also sings in the school choir, plays the piano and the guitar and serves as the school’s student council president.
“I think what’s great about Joseph is that he isn’t just the math and science kid. He has so many interests and is really well liked by the students,” Partridge said.
The affection is mutual. Joseph, who is not Catholic and attends a Presbyterian church, has attended St. Joseph’s since he was in kindergarten.
“It’s neat to be a big eighth-grader looking back on my experience here at St. Joe’s,” he said. “St. Joe’s got me all the way to this step. At St. Joe’s, religion is so important. Being a non-Catholic in a Catholic school, you look around and realize that we’re all different. You realize you should learn about other people and how to help others through selfless giving.”
Joseph is one to set his goals high. He and his parents have already been discussing what will happen if he ends up finishing high school a year early.
“My parents want me to do joint enrollment and take college classes,” he said. “But I would love to do something fun—like go to Egypt for an archaeological dig or something.”
For more information about Joseph and the Discovery Channel Challenge, visit http://school.discovery.com/sciencefaircentral/dysc.