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Student's search for cafe bacteria leads to unexpected media fame

Jasmine Roberts had just one goal in mind when she started her science fair project this year. She wanted to know whether the ice or toilet water at area fast food restaurants contained more bacteria.

She found the ice more toxic.

"I was trying to answer a scientific question," said Jasmine, 12, a Benito Middle School seventh-grader.

Now she wants to be on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

The Hillsborough County School District's communications office pointed a television reporter Jasmine's way for a preview story on the county science fair at the Sun Dome, suggesting her project might have broad general interest.

Did it ever. Not that the attention was unwarranted: Jasmine won Best of Fair, junior division, along with this year's Air Force Achievement Award and Busch Gardens Science Achievement Award, announced Wednesday night.

Since her story first aired Monday, Jasmine's dad's phone has been ringing off the hook.

"People are calling constantly," said dad Justus Roberts from his home in Hunter's Green. "I don't get a break."

Jasmine figured people would be interested in her studies. After all, she said, most people eat at fast food restaurants.

"But I didn't really expect any calls from Canada," she said.

Or Good Morning America, CBS' The Early Show, Tonight Show with Jay Leno and more.

A representative from Jimmy Kimmel Live! called the school district Wednesday, seeking to book Jasmine for later this week. Today wanted some air time, but couldn't commit until after the Olympics.

District spokeswoman Linda Cobbe couldn't remember the last time Hillsborough schools had received so much national notice, at least for something positive.

"It's so unusual, and it's so gross that it has gained attention," Cobbe said.

Benito principal Bobby Smith - who took calls from the New York Post, Canadian Public Radio and the Tim and Willie Radio Show in Phoenix - among others, effused over the interest.

"I think it's exciting because it promotes education," Smith said. "If this is a way to get students interested in science, that's great."

Jasmine's dad has served as her manager, in addition to doing his regular job, and is trying to figure out where to let his daughter go. He figured she'd appear on at least one morning show before the week ends and probably one nighttime talk show in the not too distant future.

"We're waiting for Oprah," Roberts admitted. "As soon as Oprah calls, that's it. We will be there."

Oprah was Jasmine's goal, too.

"Her famous couch, everybody has been there," she said. "I figure, why not Oprah?"

Though the academics matter most to Jasmine, she also admits that, after taking a back seat to older brother Justus II, who won the 2005 Best of Fair, senior division, she got the limelight.

"It's fun," she said. "It's my turn."

By the way, Justus II won Best of Fair, senior division, again this year.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at (813) 269-5304 or solochek@sptimes.com.

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