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Science Fair Makes a Difference

Posted: March 8, 2012

UNLV Freshman Continues Research Started as Part of Science Fair

Alexandra Wheatley, a gifted and bright high school honors student, could have gone to a number of more “prestigious” institutions, but decided to attend UNLV.

Although she grew up in Las Vegas and received the Millennium Scholarship, the primary reason Wheatley wanted to come to UNLV was to continue with the research she started in high school as part of the Beal Bank USA Southern Nevada Regional Science & Engineering Fair.

After participating in the science fair during her sophomore and junior years of high school, Wheatley, who is now a freshman in UNLV’s Honors College majoring in microbiology, realized that in order to be competitive at the regional and international fairs, she needed to get serious about her project. “The first time I participated, I realized that the fair wasn’t just about a volcano exploding,” she said. “These were serious projects.”

So during the summer before her senior year at Northwest Career and Technical Academy, and in order to have a competitive project, she started working in the lab of Duane Moser, adjunct UNLV Professor and researcher at Desert Research Institute who specializes in microbial and molecular ecology.

Wheatley spent months researching the microbiology of the deep water flow system in Death Valley. Her effort paid off as her project, “Microbial Explorations of a New Window Into the Death Valley Deep Hydrological Flow System,” won first place in the Physics, Astronomy, and Earth Science category at the 2011 Beal Bank USA Southern Nevada Regional Science & Engineering Fair.

Wheatley went on to finish third overall in her category at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, which typically has more than 1,500 finalists from affiliated fairs in 65 countries, regions, and territories. She also won first place in the specialty awards from the American Society for Microbiology. “It was one of the highlights of my life. To see all my hard work pay off,” she said.

“These science fairs have allowed me to better understand how important science and engineering are to society,” said Wheatley. “Young people really are the future. We are the ones with the new ideas who will really make a difference in the world.”

Wheatley is continuing her research with Moser while studying at UNLV. Her future plans include getting a doctoral degree in microbiology and to study phylogenetics, which is the study of evolutionary relatedness among groups of organisms.