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MPH student vies for international honors after winning local science fair

Olivia Sheppard may just be 15 years old, but she is making her case as one of the top scientific minds in Central New York.

Her project on chemical reactions that occur in firefly proteins earned her top prize at the Central New York Science and Engineering Fair held March 24.

The top two finishers from the fair won an all-expenses paid trip and invitation to compete in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, held this year in Phoenix, Ariz., from May 12 to 17.

Sheppard, a sophomore at Manlius Pebble Hill School who lives in Skaneateles, conducted her research at a Syracuse University lab under the supervision of chemistry professor Matthew Maye.

Though working with Maye at SU worked out well in the end, it took a bit of convincing at the start, she said.

“He wasn’t really sure about it when he found out I was just a sophomore. He made me really prove myself, but once we got to work, it worked out really well,” she said.

She worked at SU about four hours a week from December to March to complete the experiments.

Her project was titled: “Using nanotechnology to transfer energy between bioluminescent firefly proteins and fluorescent quantum rods.”

Bioluminescence refers to a chemical reaction that occurs in some plants and animals, such as fireflies, that causes them to emit visible light.

Using nanotechnology, scientists can recreate these chemical reactions in a lab with synthesized protein solutions and quantum rods, microscopic rods that conduct electricity and will bond with the protein.

This technology is already being used in medical imaging and could lead to new treatments for diseases and even have domestic applications one day, Sheppard said.

She was inspired to do the experiment after reading a report published by the Yale School of Medicine about nanogels that were shown to attack cancerous tumor cells.

For her project, she hypothesized that adding nickel ions to a protein solution would cause the reaction with the quantum rods to emit a stronger light. After some trial and error in the lab, she discovered her hypothesis to be true. Nickel did in fact have a positive effect on the brightness of the light.

Though the particles themselves could only be observed under a powerful microscope, the light emitted was visible to the naked eye.

Though her findings may not be ground-breaking, she said that she was not aware of anyone else who had tried such an experiment, meaning her findings are an original contribution to the field.

This was her fifth year competing in the local competition, though just her second year in the senior age division.

Sheppard said her favorite subject in school this year is chemistry and she credits MPH for helping foster her interest in science.

“I love it there. There overall environment has helped me excel in science,” she said.

Since she is only a sophomore, Sheppard said she hasn’t started looking at colleges yet, though she says she definitely is interested in studying science in college and has considered a career as a research scientist.

For now, she is focused on preparing for the international competition in May, where she could perhaps add some more honors to her already impressive resume.