SKANEATELES | When she heads to the International Science and Technology Fair in Los Angeles next month, Olivia Sheppard hopes not only to compete against some of the best students in the world - she hopes to inspire her peers to follow the same path she has taken.
The Manlius Pebble Hill School junior, who lives in Skaneateles, recently won the Central New York Science and Engineering Fair, the second year in a row she has done that, and now she will compete on the international level - also for the second year in a row.
"I've been competing in the central New York fair since I was in sixth grade, so this year was actually my sixth year," she said. "This year, I won first place, which was great. To win it two years in a row is pretty awesome."
Sheppard said she earned some other awards, including a scholarship to LeMoyne College, in addition to taking top honors at the fair against about 150 other entries.
At the international level, however, she will go up against around 1,600 other students from around the world when the fair takes place from May 11 to 16.
"It's a big competition, but it's definitely a lot of fun at the same time," Sheppard said. "I think that going there last year made it even more of a goal to try to get back there this year."
Her project for both the regional fair and the international fair focuses on research she conducted as an intern at Cornell University that involved development of a shunt device that is designed to capture colon cancer cells and treat them with a molecule that will induce death.
"I developed that device, and it's pretty intensive study, so I had to do a lot of testing and background knowledge," she said. "It was really awesome to tell that story of how I got involved in what I did to all of those people."
After spending all of last summer conducting her research and developing her device, Sheppard said her goal at the international level is to place, and she feels she has a good chance of doing that this year.
"I definitely feel like my project is stronger and definitely, definitely more in-depth because I was able to spend over 300 hours working to perfect and develop this device that I experimented on," she said.
In each of her six years participating in the regional fair, Sheppard said she had the opportunity to focus on a different aspect of science, though she noted nanotechnology and biomedical engineering have particularly caught her interest.
"It's definitely been a different project [each year]," she said. "That's one of the things I really like about doing these science fairs, that I could try something new each year. I really enjoyed everything because I like science in general."
Besides sharing information about her research, Sheppard said she is sharing her story in hopes of inspiring other high school students to get involved in science, technology, engineering and math fields.
Sheppard was featured on behalf of the Technology Alliance of Central New York at the Syracuse Museum of Science and Technology's junior science series. Speakers are typically researchers and professors.
"It's really new to have a high school student come in and talk, and they got such a big response from people that they moved to the annex theater in the MOST," she said.
She is preparing for a presentation to middle-school students at Cato-Meridian Central School, after a science teacher from there approached her at the regional fair. She hopes to give talks to other schools and organizations as well.
She is currently working on her senior thesis project and planning to frame around her goal of engaging middle-school students in STEM.
"It would be really awesome to be able to hopefully inspire other kids, just as I was kind of inspired to begin my path of STEM," Sheppard said, noting her inspiration took root when she transferred from the Skaneateles school district to Manlius Pebble Hill in sixth grade.
While the junior said she plans to pursue science as she thinks about college and a career, she noted she has had a few opportunities to explore science fields, including work at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry and at Syracuse University.
It was in the chemistry department at Syracuse that nanotechnology and biomedical engineering first caught her eye.
"I definitely think that as of right now I want to pursue a possible major or career in biomedical engineering when I go off to college," Sheppard said. "Definitely science, that's for sure."
And along the way, as she sets her own goals and makes her own accomplishments, she hopes to engage and inspire other students - especially young girls - to get involved in STEM fields and careers.
"I think it's really important to stress that everyone should be interested in and be exposed to math or science or technology or engineering. Especially girls too because there are times that girls think, 'Math, that's for boys,' because it's hard. It's hard for everyone," Sheppard said, echoing the advice of her sixth-grade science teacher. "If you work really hard in STEM, there isn't anything that you can't do. ... Just because something's hard doesn't mean you can't be good at it."