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Year in Review: Pulsar discovery tops human interest stories of 2012

Strasburg High School senior Cecilia McGough, of Woodstock, stands in front of a pulsar image displayed on a whiteboard in a science room at the school. McGough, 17, discovered a pulsar over the summer while scanning observatory data in Greenbank, W.Va. Rich Cooley/Daily file

Amelia Cohen, left, walks alongside trainer Lois Phelps with Phelps' Appaloosa on her Warren County Farm. Amelia has competed in horse shows during 2011 and 2012 and has been designated both years as the only Exceptional Rider in the state. Rich Cooley/Daily file

Faye Naumann is shown with her son Steven outside of Skyline High School last week after an early graduation was held for the family. Courtesy photo by Born Free Photography

Community members walk along the funeral procession outside Strasburg High School for Trent Williams, who passed away after a long bout with cancer. His brothers, Caden, 11, left, and twin brother Logan, 8, center, look at the crowd behind them. Rich Cooley/Daily file

Front Royal resident Jerry Scholder holds a red worm from his backyard that he claims is the key to naturally convert sewage sludge into an organic product. Scholder wants the Town of Front Royal to develop a pilot project on his research findings. Rich Cooley/Daily file

Dr. Mariecken Fowler, a neurologist with Winchester Neurological Consultants, speaks during a press conference about Winchester Medical Center's first Deep Brain Stimulation Surgery. Dale Sines, 70, from Keyser, WV, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, received the two-part surgery. Rich Cooley/Daily file

By Kim Walter

Human interest stories were bountiful during 2012, but some pulled at our heart strings and gave us a bit more hope than others. From a rare discovery to a life-changing surgery, here are the Northern Virginia Daily's top human interest stories from the past year.

Strasburg girl discovers pulsar

Cecilia McGough, 17, of Woodstock, discovered a pulsar during her week's stay in Green Bank, W.Va., with Strasburg High School's Pulsar Search Collaboratory. She is only the sixth student in the world to discover a pulsar, a dying star that rotates and gives off a beam of light, and the one she found is about the size of Washington, D.C. The rare discovery led Cecilia to compete in the International Space Olympics in Russia.

Cecilia was a "basket case" according to Strasburg High School science teacher Dottie Edwards. The student didn't want to get her hopes up before the discovery was confirmed, but was apparently "cool as a cucumber" once she received word that she did in fact find a pulsar. Edwards said she was the one who began crying because she realized the discovery would be life-changing for Cecilia, who dreams of becoming an aerospace engineer.

Trent Williams receives hero's farewell

Trent Williams, an 8-year-old from Strasburg, lost his fight with cancer in late July. The community and many from outside the area turned out to bury the young warrior as he left behind two brothers and parents Eric and Jennifer Williams. His battle and his spirit reached much further -- the Strasburg High School gymnasium was needed to hold the hundreds of people who attended his funeral. The Praying For Trent Facebook page drew thousands of people from around the country and the world who rallied and prayed for the youngster as he fought through treatments and illness.

Those who attended the boy's funeral included the University of Virginia's wrestling team, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and police officers. Trent was made an honorary fire chief by Strasburg Fire Co. 51, and the town's police department made him an honorary policeman. To the surprised delight of those at the service, Trent's blue casket was adorned with U.Va. emblems as well as angels on the corners. It was carried out of the gym to the "Star Wars" movie theme song.

4-H program benefits special needs children

Amelia Cohen, a 12-year-old Fauquier County resident, participates in the Warren County 4-H Exceptional Rider program. The program is designed for kids with special needs, and gives them a chance to ride and show horses at state horse shows. However, even though Amelia has Down syndrome, her mother said she feels the program helps "throw her in the mix" with other kids instead of excluding her. Amelia has competed in horse shows during 2011 and 2012.

"Both years, Amelia was the only Exceptional Rider in the state," said her mother, Ann Deans Masch. "It made me realize that people aren't aware, because progressive parents want our kids doing as many things as possible without having to make major adjustments, and that's what 4-H is so good at." Masch also said she believes the skills Amelia has picked up through the program will help in finding her a job once she grows out of the school system.

High school helps make mother's dream a reality

After battling cancer for 18 years, Warren County resident Faye Naumann made it a goal to see her youngest son graduate from high school. However, in late November she learned her chances of making it to June were slim, so her son and the staff at Skyline High School put together an early graduation ceremony - complete with caps, gowns and diplomas.

Naumann missed her older son's graduation years ago when she was ordered to stay at Johns Hopkins following treatment. She got to see it later on tape, but said it wasn't the same. Her son, Steven, posted on Facebook asking friends to pray for his mother following the most recent news on her aggressive cancer, and when word reached a guidance counselor at the high school, the graduation seemed like the obvious and right thing to do.

First brain surgery of its kind performed at Winchester Medical Center

Dale Sines, 70, was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2005, but thanks to a two-part deep brain stimulation surgery, he smiles, walks and talks like he did before the diagnosis. Dr. Lee Selznick, a neurosurgeon with the Virginia Brian and Spine Center, along with Dr. Mariecken Fowler, a neurologist with Winchester Neurological Consultants, were with Sines throughout the process. Selznick said that the science and technique behind the procedure have been around for some time, but the surgery can now be done in a non-academic or non-research facility.

Fowler said Sines is now on only one medication, and that dosage will be progressively decreased. Even though Sines and his wife, Rose, had to travel about 60 miles from their home to Winchester many times during the process, they said it was worth it. If it wasn't offered at the local hospital, Sines would have had to travel to Charlottesville or Washington, D.C. Now, the doctors are prepared to start screening other Parkinson's patients for the surgery, and hope to expand the service.

"Put your trust in God and your faith in these doctors," Sines said. "I'm living proof that it works."

Worms work magic

Jerry Scholder's backyard is his laboratory, and worms his lab rats. For the past two years, he has been feeding thousands of red worms human waste that has been treated at the Front Royal wastewater treatment plant. Scholder has hauled away 40,000 pounds of Class B biosolids, which he describes as stinky and pathogenic, spread them in an enclosed section of his yard and let the worms do their work. They eat the nutrients and organisms living in the waste, digest it and void themselves -- a cycle repeated eight times a day -- delivering a cleansed "casting," in a process known as vermistabilization, according to Scholder.

The worms' guts kill microbes and viruses, according to Scholder's website, vermistabilization.com. Their waste is encased in a membrane, called a casting, which is hugely beneficial to soil. The end product is a much cleaner Class A biosolid that Scholder says can be used to fertilize anything from crops, to gardens, to golf courses.

Scholder claims a small amount of vermicastings -- black gold -- added to plant soil could make the plants grow 20 percent bigger and increase their root mass by 150 percent. Scholder is lobbying the town to let him do a pilot project using his worms to treat biosolids on land at the wastewater treatment plant. He said it could be done on a half-acre parcel. He also would like the town to have someone try to find grants to fund the project. In return, Scholder said he'll save the town the hundreds of thousands of dollars it spends to get rid of biosolids.


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