— For many people, the mention of a science fair grand prize winner may be associated with the glasses-wearing, pimple-faced protagonists from “Revenge of the Nerds” or “The Big Bang Theory.”
But Manlius Pebble Hill students Olivia Sheppard, 16, of Skaneateles, and 17-year-old Emerson Czerwinski Burkard, of Jamesville, are breaking the stereotype.
Both are passionate about science and excel at it, but don’t be intimidated by their project titles from this year’s Central New York Science and Engineering Fair (CNYSEF), where they beat out around 200 other local students to win the grand prize: “Reduction of Circulating Tumor Cells by Induction of Apoptosis” and “Improvement in Crosswind Landing by use of Intelligent Holonomic Landing Gear,” respectively. They’re both well-spoken young adults with a variety of interests.
“I’m used to talking to people,” Sheppard said. “I think being in science fairs has made it easier for me to talk with adults, and that’s also carried over to my life and I feel more comfortable talking in front of groups.”
In fact, Sheppard already has experience in public speaking: she was asked to be a guest lecturer last month at the Museum of Science and Technology (MOST) in Syracuse for the Technology Alliance of Central New York’s Junior Café Scientifique, where she spoke to local middle-school students about how she became interested and passionate about science.
“I’m hoping to show this talk around to various middle schools and inspire middle school students to become interested or at least look into the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) field,” she said.
Awareness at an early age
Sheppard’s interest in science began in the same place she just recently gave a lecture to inspire others: the MOST. When she was in third grade, Sheppard watched an IMAX movie about coral reefs and how they’re being affected by climate change. She immediately wanted to know more, and did her first science fair project on the topic of climate change.
“I thought it was interesting how just a slight temperature change could affect so much and I really wanted to know more about the science behind it,” she said.
When Sheppard was in middle school, then- Vice President Al Gore came to Syracuse to give a lecture on climate change. She reached out him and was not only able to attend Gore’s talk, she even got to meet Gore following the lecture.
“I talked to him about how I was really passionate about learning about these coral reefs and when I met with him after, that led to me becoming a member of Inconvenient Youth [a group of teenagers from across the country who get together to discuss climate change and how to stop it.]”
In sixth grade, Sheppard became old enough to enter her first CNYSEF, and she’s been participating every year since. In 2013, Sheppard won the grand prize for the first time and was invited to attend the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, in which the top 1,600 science fair students from across the world gather to compete. And this year, she’ll be going to Los Angeles in May to attend the fair for the second time, along with Czerwinski Burkard.
She estimates that she spend about 300 hours working on her project over the course of the year. Her work began last summer, when she secured an internship in biomedical engineering department at Cornell University, where Sheppard was able to spend the majority of her time researching and testing for her science fair project.
She created a potentially implantable device that could go in a person’s body near the site where a tumor was removed, which could reduce the chance of metastasis, or the chance that the tumor could move to other areas throughout the body.
“It was a lot of work, but I definitely understand all of the mechanisms and really knew what I was talking about and I portrayed that and communicated it to the judges,” she said. “So I feel like that work really paid off.”
Learning through experience
Like Sheppard, Czerwinski Burkard became interested in science at an early age.
“I grew up reading scientific magazines- Scientific American, Popular Mechanics – and I really got into the projects that they were doing, even when I couldn’t fully understand the science behind it,” he said. “I wanted to figure out what they were doing and wanted to see if I could do a similar test or study of my own.”
But Czerwinski Burkard’s passion really ignited on a trip to Florida when he was 13. There, he was able to ride in an old war airplane, and was immediately hooked.
“I realized, ‘This is something that’s really exciting and I really enjoy doing it,’” he said.
As soon as he was old enough, Czerwinski Burkard began taking flying lessons. He’s been taking lessons for about three years now, and hopes to get his pilot license before he graduates high school next year.
His project at this year’s science fair was inspired a problem he had one day when trying to land his plane in a crosswind. Czerwinski Burkard said that when a pilot is trying to land in a crosswind, the plan has to be aligned in the direction of the wind, but that can cause problems if the plane isn’t in the direction of the runway and has to touch down sideways. “So I wanted to find a way that you could safely touch down sideways,” he said.
Czerwinski Burkard began working on his project last July, doing research, and began testing on a model plane in the fall. Using an app on his phone and a government-certified aviation simulation program, he was able to land the plane sideways with landing gear that he created.
“[My experience flying planes] is where the aeronautical projects have always come from. It’s inspiration and real life experiences in realizing ‘What really has to be changed and what can I make better?” said Czerwinski Burkard, who also won the CNYSEF grand prize for the second time this year. He traveled to the international fair two years ago, when it was held in Pittsburgh. Like Sheppard, he has entered the CNYSEF every year since sixth grade.
A bright future
Both students are looking forward to returning to the international fair again. They’re excited about the fact that the judging is much more intense because the judges are all more specialized in their respective areas than the judges at the local fair.
“It’s not even about the awards per se, it’s about being able to talk to the community – actual scientific experts who work in the field, and get feedback,” said Czerwinski Burkard. “It’s really interesting to hear what people think – they give you very frank responses and really good questions on what they think.”
They’re also excited to friends they’ve made at the previous international fair. Czerwinski Burkard said it’s eye-opening to see the projects that come in from across the world.
“It’s good to hear what kind of projects and issues people from other countries bring in,” he said. “You can really see what different cultures are like around the world and the scientific problems or things that they’re trying to solve and things that they’re interested in.”
Sheppard and Czerwinski Burkard, who are friends at school and involved in several of the same after school clubs, said they’re been pushing each other all year to do the best that they could in the competition so that they could attend the international fair together.
“Last year, when I was [at the international fair] in Phoenix, I told Emerson how I wanted to come back next year and how he should come too, and that we should really start planning this now,” said Sheppard. “It was a big goal, but I felt that if we were hard on each other and really pushed each other, we could do it. And when I heard both of our names called, at that moment, I realized that it had come true, and that we had done it. It was really amazing.”