A team of three Santa Monica High School students took second place in the Microbiology category of the L.A. County Science Fair this weekend.

Seniors Jesse Gomer, Zachary Gold and junior Winston Lee submitted two-and-a-half years of data on ocean water quality in the Santa Monica Bay. The information was synthesized into a written report and poster board.

They will move onto the state nationals competition in May.

The research tested for fecal indicator bacteria, which often points to the presence of other harmful viruses in the water, said science teacher Benjamin Kay.

Using equipment obtained through a grant by the Surfrider Foundation, the students gathered data at three sites — the Santa Monica Pier, a storm drain near Casa del Mar and Tower 26, where Ocean Park Boulevard hits the ocean.

The students then added a substance that the bacteria consume over the course of 24 hours and produce a byproduct that glows under ultraviolet light. The amount of that fluorescent substance tells the researchers how much bacteria is in the water.

They were surprised to learn that the water in front of Ocean Park Boulevard was not significantly cleaner than the other two sites, despite the fact that it has no storm drain.

In addition, the students discovered that it was necessary to take multiple samples at the same site, because taking only one sample could actually miss the harmful bacteria.

“We took three samples at each site,” Gold said. “I don’t remember why at first. When we took the three samples, we determined that if you only do one, like Heal the Bay or the county, there’s a 40 percent chance that you can miss a hit and the beach could be polluted.”

Both Lee and Kay won awards at the fair.

Lee got the Earthwatch Institute Student Fellowship courtesy of Dr. Peter and Helen Bing, a $3,000 prize, to conduct research alongside expert field scientists in a foreign location.

Kay was awarded the Earth Month Teacher Hero Grand Prize of $5,000 courtesy of the Wyland Foundation, Toyota, KCAL/KCBS and AES.

“My students are the ones that inspired me,” Kay said. “It’s usually them going up and receiving these awards.”

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