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Chuck Vukotich remembers the day he dedicated his life to science: May 5, 1961.

While home sick from school, the then 11-year-old sat in front of the television and watched astronaut Alan Shepard become the first American in space.

Over the years Vukotich has seen other adventurers, from John Glenn and Neil Armstrong to Elon Musk and most recently William Shatner, break the surly bonds of Earth. Each launch, he says, is just as exciting as the first.

Vukotich, now 71, is retired from the Allegheny County Health Department, where he worked for three decades. But he’s not content to sit back and count stars.

You can usually find him at the Carnegie Science Center, where he volunteers as an Advisory Board Member and helps orchestrate the Pittsburgh Regional Science and Engineering Fair (PRSEF). It’s a “job” and a commitment to mentorship that he’s undertaken since 1992, when the North Shore facility opened.

As one of the largest and oldest science fairs in the country, PRSEF inspires and challenges middle and high school students to research, design and present an original experiment while competing for cash prizes and scholarships. Vukotich chairs the PRSEF’s Judge Advisory Committee.

“The fair would not be what it is today without his amazing leadership and enthusiasm,” says Megan McKenzie, the Center’s events marketing manager. “He’s known as the science fair’s biggest cheerleader, and he works with the Science Center team year-round to ensure a rewarding experience for the students. He is also heavily involved in the International Science and Engineering Fair, and was instrumental in bringing that fair to Pittsburgh several times in the past 10 years.”

Chuck Vukotich presenting the 2019 Carnegie Science Award for Junior Division Student to Summer Hartman for her PRSEF project. Photo courtesy of Carnegie Science Center.

The 83rd Annual PRSEF will take place in March. The competition is open to all students in grades 6 through 12 from the 21 counties within Western Pennsylvania and also Garrett County, Maryland. Each year, approximately 1,000 students from more than 100 schools participate.

Vukotich, who earned degrees in chemistry and a master’s in public management from Carnegie Mellon University, and one in chemical engineering from the University of Pittsburgh, says he’s learned a lot from the budding scientists.

His favorite project was by an 8th-grade girl from Ambridge who used the scientific method to determine how the hair spray she used every morning was affecting the plants she kept in her bathroom. Through her research – the control group of plants was given only water, the study group was given water and hairspray – she deduced that the plants that soaked up Aquanet along with regular H20 grew larger.

This experiment didn’t change the course of modern science, but Vukotich was happy to see a student apply the scientific method to something that interested them and made an impact on their life.

Over the years, other memorable projects include a boy who developed a test for detecting pancreatic cancer. Another student built a drone that would fly into blazes and send back real-time information to firefighters.

The passionate young people remind Vukotich of that wide-eyed 11-year-old who dreamed of blasting into orbit like Alan Shepard. Life’s twists and turns kept the Mt. Lebanon resident’s feet on the ground, but his head was always focused on the dizzying heights achieved by science – and along the way, on encouraging young people who love science as much as he does.

He’s also aware that science — and all it teaches us about health and safety — can help the entire community. Vukotich helped write anti-smoking laws for both the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the City of Pittsburgh, and was involved in the seatbelt enforcement movement of the 1980s.

But space remains an ongoing fascination. Vukotich collects stamped envelopes postmarked on the date and place of space launches, including one from Cape Canaveral dated May 5, 1961. He even writes a regular column for Linn’s Stamp News, a weekly magazine for stamp collectors.

Space exploration, he believes, is definitely something to write home about.

“If you offered me a ride into orbit with a 50 percent chance that I wouldn’t come back, I’d go,” he says with a laugh. “That’s what space is all about; being open to being adventuresome.”

Kristy Locklin

Kristy Locklin is a North Hills-based writer. When she's not busy reporting, she enjoys watching horror movies and exploring Pittsburgh's craft beer scene.