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An Insatiable Mind

Featured Photo from An Insatiable Mind

Lake Mary teen turns his knack for science into some serious prize money

Sam Baker seems, in many respects, like your typical teenager. He likes to jam out to metal bands, take a dip in the family pool, and tinker in the garage.

But your typical teenager’s tinkering doesn’t include creating a flame hotter than the surface of the sun. Or mixing hazardous acids and compounds. Or walking along the floor of the pool under a helmet he created out of a cat litter container that traps oxygen and keeps out water.

Sam’s scientific ingenuity recently led him to be named Grand Prize winner at the 20th Annual Dr. Nelson Ying Science Competition at the Orlando Science Center, a prize worth $5,000.

“Part of me is very proud of him,” says Sam’s mom, Christine Janesko, as Sam shows off the chemical arsenal in their garage. “And part of me says, ‘Oh my God, what is he doing now?!’”

As for Sam, who recently graduated from Crooms Academy of Information Technology, his true love for science emerges in such impromptu utterances as, “Molten iron spewing everywhere – it’s really beautiful.”

At 18, Sam’s overdrive intellect is belied by a low-key temperament and sly sense of humor. He talks like a teen, not a stuffy engineer.
“It’s cool,” Sam says of the diving bell he fashioned from a Tidy Cat bucket, “‘cause you can jump around the pool. It feels like you’re on the moon.”

Sam’s ability to explain complex scientific concepts in concise, easy-to-digest ways is one of the reasons he took the top prize at Ying. In a scientific paper, Sam explained how he was able to use plant compost to create activated carbon, which is used in everything from electronics to blood dialysis. Typically, such carbon comes from coal, which must be mined and processed at the expense of the environment.

Science, Sam believes, is about doing your best for humanity. But it doesn’t always take science to contribute to the community. For his Eagle Scout project, Sam built a special cabinet to house and display a five-foot piece of The Senator, the 3,500-year-old bald cypress tree in Longwood that was the victim of arson. The cabinet will be housed at Seminole County’s Environmental Studies Center.

Sam split his Ying prize with his partner in curiosity – friend and fellow Crooms grad Gabriel DeGaglia who initially collaborated with Sam on his active carbon project. The two, who have known each other since middle school, also won Best in Fair at the Lockheed Martin Science Challenge this year, good for $4,000.

“Gabe and Sam just feed off each other,” Christine says. “I don’t think either one of them would have gotten as far without the other.”
Sam started collecting rocks at age six. In school, he says, he was a little lazy in math and not too interested in grammar, but “science was my thing.” He was greatly influenced by his maternal grandfather, John, an electrical engineer who began sharing his knowledge when Sam was a mere boy.

Music is another huge part of Sam’s life, and it frequently intersects with the science. For example, Sam uses a 5,000-volt arc running through saltwater to create rock ‘n’ roll images, including the cover of Pink Floyd’s iconic album The Dark Side of the Moon.

Sam has also rigged an oscilloscope, which displays sonic waveforms, so that he can see the music being performed by his favorite metal bands, such as the pioneering Motorhead.

A cabinet in Sam’s garage is stuffed with such chemicals as bismuth metal, nitric acid, and copper sulfate. One compound is labeled Flowers of Sulfur in a World War II-era container, like something you might see in a pharmacy in an old Western.

Christine keeps a wary eye on things.

“You’ve got a young man who wants to test the limits of science,” she says. “And you’ve got a mom who wants to avoid fires and trips to the emergency room.”

Sam keeps a small cactus-like plant in the garage to measure the toxicity of the air.

“If it dies, something is wrong,” he says nonchalantly.

Has Sam ever hurt himself during his experiments?

“Many times. But here’s the thing about electricity,” Sam explains. “You have to respect it because it does not respect you. When I was younger, I didn’t respect it, and I paid for it. It’s like Old Testament God – you can’t bargain with it.”

But, to date, Sam has suffered only minor shocks and burns. No trips to the emergency room.

Sam, who plans to study engineering at the University of Central Florida, says all his prize money is going into his college fund. The starving student gig is not for him, but his lifestyle goals in the pursuit of scientific knowledge remain modest.

“I don’t want to eat ramen noodles,” Sam says. “I want to eat sandwiches.”

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