Regeneration of Tooth Enamel using an Innovative Hydrophilic
Polymer-Coated Retainer; Optimizing Algae Biofuels: Artificial Selection to
Improve Lipid Synthesis; Fluorescent Imaging for Nano-Detection (FIND) of
Cancer Cells for Future Surgery.
These are titles of the projects being
presented in Washington DC
this week at the Intel Science Talent Search. Vincent O’Leary, a senior at Wheeling
Catholic High School,
is one of forty finalists set to compete. His presentation is focused on
invasive crayfish species.
The selection process is highly competitive, and besides the
research paper, letters of recommendation, essays, test scores, extracurricular
activities, and high school transcripts are factors that may be considered.
Each year there are about 1700 submissions. O’Leary’s project is the only
animal science project that was selected.
“That is a big problem,” O’Leary says, “convincing people
that invasive crayfish matter. Especially this kind of competition, where other
kids are out there curing cancer and working on teleportation—obviously that
matters. You don’t have to convince people that you cured cancer and that’s a
good thing. With invasive crayfish you have to convince people.”
O’Leary explains that this fair is unique because he’s able
to present research he’s done over several years. His project is titled, “A
Multi-Year Analysis of Orconectid Crayfish Invasion Dynamics in West Virginia
Utilizing Laboratory and Field Methodologies.” His fascination with crayfish
began around the same time as his enthusiasm for science fairs.
“In eighth grade I got to compete at the West Liberty
Science Fair and I ended up getting runner-up and getting to go observe at an
international science fair. Being part of that atmosphere and seeing over 1500
kids from all over the world and present really impressive work that is finding
solutions to problems no one had even thought of before—that made me want to
continue on in high school and become a part of that community.”
“So I got in contact with Dr. Loughman at West
Liberty and he kind of steered me in the right direction and
helped me refine my work. These past four years I’ve just done work on invasive
animals and gone on to present many times at national and international levels.
I’ve been lucky enough to have been recognized by those people and it’s just
been a wonderful experience doing that.”
And a lucrative one. O'Leary has collected nearly $180,000
in prize money and scholarships from winning numerous regional, state, and
international science competitions. More than $600,000 in awards will be on the
line this week in Washington DC.
The top winner will receive $100,000. And no one can say O’Leary hasn’t earned
Not with a mentor like Zach Loughman.
“If you work with me you have to pretty much accept the fact
that we will do whatever it takes to get the animal,” Loughman says. “And if
that means snorkeling at night in 58-degree water to catch the critters then
that’s what we’re going to do.”
And that is exactly what they did. For their most recent
research the two went after the invasive nocturnal Viral crayfish. They caught
20, glued tiny radio transmitters on their little claws, and recorded just how
far and where they traveled over the course of a week.
“We found something that no one has ever recorded before,”
says O’Leary. “They were expected to only move maybe a couple of meters maybe
over night—they really don’t move at all—and we were recording them moving up
stream, down stream, up rivers, through currents, nothing seemed to stop them
Loughman also introduced O’Leary to an invasive crayfish
called the Rusty. He told O’Leary that the Rusty was a known aggressor in the
aquatic mountain stream ecosystem. A native crayfish out of Ohio,
O’Leary says the Rusty is making its way around the country and has even been
found recently as far away as France.
“Zach promised me that if I sat in my basement and watched
them fight there would be all this data and I could watch them fight and see
how they interact and that sounded pretty fun. So I do it and I’m sitting there
for weeks just recording all these crayfish NOT fight. And I came back to him a
couple weeks later and said, ‘Zach, nothing
happened.’ They just sat there and I was sitting at my TV looking at nothing
for hours. And that’s where the project started to take off.”
For three years O’Leary watched nothing happen. And it was a
breakthrough of sorts, not to mention a feat of determination, and a veritable
model of scientific methodology.
O’Leary sat, for hours, and instead of finding
something active and exciting and, frankly engaging—his expectations were
confounded as he noted an absence of activity which indicated that the invasion
of these crayfish was occurring in a way not yet realized. A significant discovery
if your aim is to conceive of solutions to the invasive problem before it’s out
“Right now the current way to stop an invasive species is
just to wait until it happens, wait until it gets BAD, and then put billions of
dollars into a system to try to stop them which never has worked. There’s almost no successful record of removing
O’Leary says in the US
we spend more than $100 billion annually trying to stop alien species
invasions. He says not only do these species wreck ecological havoc, they’re
also responsible for billions lost economically in various business sectors
like, in the crayfish world, fishing.
“I’m trying to get people’s attention to the problem before
it becomes a problem or to stop it from happening in the first place. When you
hear about invasive animals like the Asian Carp or the Emerald Ash Borer—when
the general public knows what they are, that means they’re there for good.
You’re not getting rid of those ones.”
O’Leary plans to go on to study invasive animals in college.
He says in this day and age of human globe-hopping, it’s a field of growing
“In the 21st century, there’s literally nothing
we can do and there’s no new idea right now about how to stop them on a large
scale that anyone can implement. So it’s just that there’s so much more to
discover and with the world—everyone’s traveling so much more now and animals
are being spread so much more quickly. It’s a huge problem and no one is
While he wants to ultimately address the issue of
global invasive species problems, for the time being O’Leary is hoping to do
well in the Intel Science Talent Search.