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MPH student vies for international honors after winning local science fair

Olivia Sheppard with her award-winning presentation demonstrating her research which she conducted at Syracuse University.

Olivia Sheppard with her award-winning presentation demonstrating her research which she conducted at Syracuse University. Joe Genco

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.

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Submitted photo

Sheppard working in the lab at SU.

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.

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