SKANEATELES | Syracuse University Professor Mathew Maye wasn't sure he wanted to work with a high school senior on her science project. After he learned Olivia Sheppard is actually a sophomore, Sheppard knew she would have to fight hard to prove she was serious about science.
"He was so surprised that I was so interested and so dedicated to this but it was really, really fascinating when I found (the topic of nanoscience) because it's something totally new," Sheppard said.
The risk paid off. Sheppard won this year's MOST Annual Central New York Science and Engineering Fair in March, and will compete in an international fair in May. Sheppard's project was selected as one of two finalists that will move on from the fair, beating out 178 exhibitors from area schools.
Now, the Manlius Pebble Hill sophomore and another competitor will take their projects to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair this May.
"I tested to see if the addition of nickel ions in a protein solution I had would affect the energy transfer of the proteins I was using to these little mechanisms called quantum rods," she said.
Her project focused on energy transfer between bioluminescent firefly proteins and fluorescent quantum rods, with a focus on nanotechnology, which is the delivery of material to places in the body, for example to capture images of tumors. She first learned of nanoscience while reading an article in the Yale School of Medicine about drug-loaded nano-gels, or gels that are filled with small particles, that attacked cancer cells in the body.
To gauge the amount of energy transfer, she used a tool to measure the intensity of the light emitted. Her project was a bit different than others she read about because the components were excited by the light emitted by the solution, rather than having an external energy source introduced into the solution.
She worked with Maye in his lab, along with a graduate student. Sheppard designed the study and led the experiment, although she relied on them to help guide her to ensure the experiment was fair and done properly. She spent about four hours a week in the lab for about two and a half months.
"They're there to answer questions or help me to understand what I should do next, or to think of the possibilities," the 15-year-old said. "I ran all the data."
This isn't the first time she's stood out in a science fair. In the past four years that she entered the CNY Science and engineering Fair, she earned honors for her projects, and took fourth place last year. Previous topics include using liquid nitrogen to preserve seeds to see the effects on their germination, and extracting DNA from peas.
"It was a great feeling when my name came up on the screen," she said of learning she earned the grand prize this year.
As she looks to the future, she thinks she wants to continue with science. Sheppard first wanted to go into the field of marine biology, but is now leaning toward research science. She became interested in science after her sixth-grade teacher told her that not many girls go into science, technology, engineering and math fields. She began to enter science projects into the regional fair that year.
"My science teacher was really my inspiration to start focusing on science. That's when I really started loving it," Sheppard said. "She told me that a strong young woman who is really dedicated and passionate about what she does would have all avenues open to her."