West Virginia high school senior Vincent O’Leary, 17, has reason to smile. He recently was announced as a member of an elite group of science scholars, the finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search 2013, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious pre-college science competition. He is the only finalist from the Mountain State.

Daniel O'Leary and Dr. Zach Loughman

High school student Vincent O'Leary is shown with mentor Dr. Zach Loughman

But his mentor, Dr. Zac Loughman, West Liberty University’s assistant professor of biology, has a bigger smile. His life work of teaching and mentoring young scientists is rewarded.

“As an educator and mentor, it doesn’t get any better than this!” Dr. Loughman said when he learned of O’Leary’s top-40 ranking at the national talent search just a few days ago. But the journey to this prestigious honor has been years in the making.

“I started working with Vincent when he was 14 and about to enter high school. Vincent participated in the 2008 West Liberty Regional Science and engineering fair, and was judged by several of my colleagues. Everyone that met Vincent said I had to meet him, that he was a carbon copy of me when I was his age. While at the fair, his parents asked if anyone was willing to direct Vincent with his future science fair projects, and that he wanted to do work with animals. I remembered how WLU Professor Bob Gordon mentored me when I was a young science fair participant and knew this was a chance to pay it forward. I called Vincent’s parents, told them that I was willing to work with him if he was willing to work with crayfish since that is the focus of my research lab. Vincent and his mom came to campus, saw what we were doing and agreed that this was something they wanted to pursue. From that initial meeting and a tremendous amount of work and dedication, we arrived where we are now.”

When Vincent started his scientific endeavors, he needed a project. Loughman knew the project had to be eye-catching and novel. Work he did with his WLU students had determined that in Sunfish Creek, Monroe County, Ohio, the native crayfish population was eradicated by a non-native crayfish, the Rusty Crayfish. Interestingly, directly across the Ohio River in West Virginia’s Proctor Creek and Fishing Creek, rusty crayfish is not found. This begged a question. Why? Sunfish, Proctor and Fishing creeks all meet up with the Ohio River, so it was entirely possible for crayfishes from Ohio to simply cross the Ohio River and enter those streams.

The first two projects O’Leary did focused on one-on-one interactions between rusty crayfish and rock crayfish, and rusty crayfish and Allegheny crayfish.

“For these projects, Vincent and I went into the field and collected crayfishes, which he maintained in his garage. One of the coolest things about Vincent’s work is the support of his parents. They let him convert a large portion of their garage into his laboratory! Once a month I would visit Vincent’s garage and check in on his progress. Any time he needed anything he would email or call, and we would discuss issues he was having. I was completing my Ph.D. at that time, and would call my academic adviser to discuss dissertation issues, hang up the phone, and then get a phone call from Vincent and have the same level conversation with him. Vincent truly works at a different level than most high school students.”

Results from the first two projects indicated that rusty crayfish weren’t inherently aggressive in one-on-one interactions and only became aggressive once they had a territory to defend.

“After the first two years of study, it became apparent that Vincent needed to increase the biological scale in his invasive research. In 2008, I performed a project in Terra Alta, W.Va., at Oglebay Institute’s field station with burrowing crayfishes where we put small video cameras over crayfish burrows and recorded what they did at the burrow entrances at night. I told Vincent about this, and he asked if we could use the cameras for his project. So we devised a way to use the cameras to answer his invasion question. We also went into the field and determined the crayfish community population per large rock in the stream, and Vincent used that data to calculate how many of each crayfish needed to be in a tank to replicate natural population levels.”

Then the video recording began, hundreds of hours of filming these creatures.

“Vincent did an awesome job categorizing the different interaction behaviors and then watching the video. Aspects of this project were incredibly monotonous, yet he once again impressed me with his diligence. The results confirmed what the previous two years work suggested. He also received third place in zoology at the Intel International science fair with this project. That was the icing on the cake for me,” Loughman said.

During the summer of 2012 Vincent took his studies to a whole new level. Loughman received funding from the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources to study movement patterns of another invasive crayfish, the virile crayfish. This study took place in Anthony Creek near Lewisburg, W.Va.

“We began this study the summer of 2011. During that field season as the data was rolling in, I realized that this was the perfect project for Vincent to end his high school science fair career with. Given the previous work he had done, I knew he was up to the challenge. Now he was going from his garage to the field, using radio telemetry, and gathering field data important to answering invasive crayfish questions. I asked Vincent if he would like to use this as his last project and he agreed this was a good idea.”

“Last summer Vincent became the youngest member of my WLU field crew for the eight days it took to gather all the information. We worked on the telemetry project in the morning, and once the data was gathered, headed out to survey crayfishes from streams throughout southwestern West Virginia. It was one of the more rewarding field experiences I’ve had as a scientist.”

This fall, O’Leary decided to apply for the Intel Science Search. He took the work from the summer of 2012 and combined it with the previous three years worth of work to create a 30-page report of findings.

“I knew this was the big leagues. I reviewed his paper several times and wrote the most intensive letter of recommendation I’ve ever completed in my life for any student,” Loughman said. “Then we sat back and waited. When Vincent heard that he made the top 300, we were excited. When he called me and told me he made the top 40, I was flat out speechless! He is competing against teenagers working in labs that have millions of dollars worth of funding and beat them! It’s awesome to think that hard work can still be rewarded and West Liberty University was a part of that.”

O’Leary will compete in Washington, D.C. from March 7-13 for $630,000 in awards. The top winner receives $100,000 from the Intel Foundation.

“I‘m proud of Vincent and happy to have played a part in his excellent work. West Liberty University is always willing to help any future scientist that is willing to put in the work needed to succeed in science. West Liberty has a tradition of mentoring young scientists from the Ohio Valley. Mr. Gordon was and still is my mentor. I felt it only fitting to carry that tradition on with Vincent.“

“Working with Dr. Loughman and West Liberty has been one of the most significant and rewarding experiences of my life. The work I’ve done has sent me all over the country and put me in contact with wonderful people around the world. More importantly, it has exposed me to the world of scientific discovery and introduced me to the side of science you can’t get in a textbook. This experience has opened me up to a career in science, something I may not have considered without it,” O’Leary said. “Science fair is something everyone should consider after grade school because it’s much more exciting in high school and West Liberty is willing to help.”

“Our students are enthusiastic learners and investigators. If you’re interested in science, call me. I can guarantee students a chance for learning that makes a difference in the real world and results in a fascinating career,” said Loughman, who is a WLU graduate, class of 2002.

For more information on Loughman and his work, please visit WLU’s website or contact him at 304-336-8923.

More on Intel Science Talent Search 2013

  • Intel Science Talent Search 2013 finalists are from 40 schools in 21 states. Finalist projects are distributed among 16 categories, including bioengineering, chemistry, mathematics, computer science, physics and space science, behavioral and social sciences, and plant science. The 40 finalists were narrowed down from 300 semifinalists and more than 1,700 entrants.