A Scientific Family


That such an important discovery has been made by a high school student provides a wonderful contrast to the rather depressing statistics about the decline in scores of American students on standardized science and math tests that we hear so much about. Mims is the kind of student who gives us reason to believe there is hope for another generation of promising scientists.

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  Photograph of Sarah Working on top of Tower

In the Mims’ household, science is a family activity, with Sarah’s dad as the instigator. Himself an amateur scientist, Forrest Mims’ passion for tinkering with electronics and science equipment led to a career writing books and designing electronics and science kits for Radio Shack. Amateur became professional, though, when a homemade device he built provided ground-based feedback about the accuracy of one of the first satellite sensors NASA launched to monitor the ozone layer. Since then, he has been involved in several NASA projects, including studies of smoke, ozone, and ultraviolet radiation in the Amazon. He’s also one of the lead scientists in NASA’s GLOBE program, a worldwide, hand-on science education program, in which students collect Earth science observations and analyze them in conjunction with scientists.

Having a scientist for a father clearly motivated Sarah and her older brother and sister. Sarah’s older brother Eric developed a seismometer that detected two underground nuclear tests in Nevada from his bedroom back home in Texas, and her sister Vicki measured the rotation of the sun by tracking sunspots. As far back as first or second grade, Forrest Mims was encouraging Sarah to conduct basic science experiments. She remembers that one of her first science projects was a science-in-your-home standard. “The very first one I can remember doing was measuring the acidity of common household products. Every year I would take on a new project,” she says.

As she grew up, she began to realize the practical advantages to her science projects. “I like discovering new things about the world, and I like the challenge of answering questions from the scientists who judge the fairs,” she says. She must have impressed quite a few of them because she has already been offered numerous college scholarships, and hopes to win more as a result of her senior year project, which is a follow-on to her pervious work.

Senior Year

“I know that the weakest part of my last project is the possibility that the fungal spores are local,” explains Mims. Even though the samples were collected on an observation tower that was 3 meters (about 10 feet) above the ground, and even though the spores did increase when smoke was present, it’s still possible, she says, that the spores she collected on her slides and her Petrifilms were local fungi stirred up from the ground. There could be some other reason why spores increased at the same time as the Central America smoke events. Perhaps the winds that drove the smoke north, for example, kicked up more spores than usual as the air traveled the short distance between Texas’ Gulf Coast and the town of Seguin.

Mims hopes her senior year project, carried out this summer, will provide conclusive evidence that Central American smoke is the source of the spores. To get the best evidence, she knew she needed to reduce as much as possible the chances that the spores were from other places in Texas. She needed to collect samples as close to the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico as possible, and high up in the air. To solve the first problem, she chose to collect samples at Padre Island, on the Texas coast.

To solve the second problem, she followed in her father’s creative footsteps, making her own low-tech device for collecting samples. Mims hesitates a little as she describes it, as though she’s afraid it won’t sound very scientific. “I took a plastic cup and cut holes in the rim, where you drink, and then attached it to the kite with string. Then I pressed my microscope slides into the bottom of the cup.”


Sarah Mims used the observation tower her father set up in the back yard to capture aerosols—and the bacteria and mold that hitchhiked their way across the ocean. (Photograph by Forrest M. Mims III)

  Photograph of Sarah Sampling with a Kite

It might seem low-tech, but it did the job, collecting plenty of good air samples. “Well, except for the time when I quit paying attention for a second, and the kite dove into the ocean,” she says, laughing. “That was kind of a drag. I had to wipe everything off and start all over.”

In the summer of 2003, Mims began analyzing the two main kite samples and found both spores and soot. The NOAA back-trajectories show that the air over Padre Island the day she was flying her kite had originated in the Yucatan two days earlier, where plenty of fires were burning. These latest observations—collected far from land and way up in the air—once again show a link between smoke and spores, making Mims a lot more confident that many of the spores she has been collecting are coming with the smoke, and not from local sources. Her amazing discovery is sure to be the start of this young scientist’s promising career.

  • Sarah A. Mims and Forrest M. Mims III, Fungal spores are transported long distances in smoke from biomass fires, Atmospheric Environment 38, 651-655 (2004).

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Using simple tools Mims is refining her experiments from 2002. Steady ocean breezes help keep her kite flying and deliver air direct from Mexico. By testing samples collected beneath the kite, Mims can confirm that the spores she’s finding come from far-away fires and not local sources. (Photograph by Forest M. Mims III)