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May 13, 2010
By Mary Hunton
Last May the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) came to the University of Nevada, Reno. Bringing with it approximately 1,000 judges, 150 language interpreters, and 500 volunteers, ISEF proved to be a huge success. Taylor Wilson of the Davidson Academy competed in the 2009 fair with his Farnsworth Fusor. Wilson is once again attending ISEF, and the Davidson Academy is sending another young scientist this year as well.
Casey Acklin, a 14-year-old high school student, is new blood to the ISEF competition. Though science and science fairs are nothing new to him, this is the first year that Acklin will participate in ISEF, which will be held in San Jose, Calif., May 9-14.
“My first year that I competed (in the 43rd annual Western Nevada Regional Science and Engineering Fair) I won first, and the second year I won second,” Acklin said. “I wasn’t old enough to go to ISEF. I was competing in the sixth and seventh grade divisions.”
This year he did exceptionally well in the Western Nevada Regional. With his project on cage environments and the stress levels of mice, Acklin received second place in the life science division for his age group, individual finalist, and received the Ron Orta Excellence in Biomedical Research Award and the Jr. Naval Science Award. This has more than qualified him to move onto ISEF.
“He’s very accountable. He’s responsible,” said Ruth Gault, research scientist in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology and Acklin’s faculty advisor. “He’s not a typical 14-year-old.”
Gault has been helping Acklin out from the very beginning. He came to her with his idea during the fall semester, and Gault was more than willing to do what she could.
“I feel we have a certain obligation to help the next generation through the system and to encourage them,” Gault said.
The first time Gault met Acklin was in a lecture she did at the Davidson Academy a few years ago. She says that working with the younger students in the Academy is refreshing. The Davidson Academy is a free public day school for profoundly gifted middle and high school students that is located on the University of Nevada, Reno, campus.
“Their minds were so much more open, and they weren’t afraid to ask or present ideas,” Gault said. “They put it so that I look at science in a different way than what I’m use to looking at it. Being in the research labs and instructing you tend to look down one avenue, and they bring up detours. It reminds me of why I went into science in the first place.”
Gault helped Acklin with a project he did for the Western Nevada Regional a couple of years ago, dealing with planarian (flatworms) and regeneration rates. As refreshing as it is for Gault to work with Acklin, the experience has been a blessing for him as well.
“She has been absolutely great,” he said. “I’m really glad I’ve been able to work with her. Her philosophy is that she will let the people working under her make mistakes so they learn how to do it, and I’ve made my fair share of mistakes in the lab. I think the way she helped me indirectly was really, really helpful and will help me in lab experiences when I go on to research.”
Aside from helping him with this particular project and preparing him for ISEF, Gault was also a judge in the competition last year when it was hosted in Reno.
“It’s phenomenal what some of these high school kids are doing,” she said. “It’s encouraging to see the pipeline coming up. Who knows what’s going to happen.”
Acklin is looking forward to the fair, even though he knows competition will be tough.
“Last year ISEF was in Reno and I went to visit,” he said. “The projects there are really, really cool. I’m doing some pretty cool stuff but there are also a lot of other really smart kids out there. I don’t know how I’m going to do, but I’m really looking forward to seeing the other projects.”
If anything, Acklin is looking at ISEF as a phenomenal opportunity to improve himself, his project, and his approach to future contests.
“I think it’s going to be a real challenge for me to try to get my project to be better,” he said. “I’m going to learn how to improve it after this. I think this will help me in the years to come as well.”