MARLIN, Wash. – Stacia Lesser grew up in the house where her father was born on a family farm in this tiny town about 20 minutes outside Odessa.
Surrounded by arid rangeland and sagebrush, she was always interested in science – but never imagined that a key to her future was right beneath her feet.
Lesser, 18, used soil samples from the family farm to research erosion, determining the date of the samples using the distinct layer of Mount St. Helen’s ash in the ground.
That research just earned her a gold medal at the International Genius Olympiad held at State University of New York in Oswego, New York, and a four-year, full-ride scholarship to Washington State University.
Soft-spoken and just a tad shy, Lesser was reluctant when her science teacher at Odessa High School, Jeffery Wehr, suggested she use soil samples from the family farm in her research.
“I didn’t want to do it,” Lesser said, standing in the family’s cattle pasture near Jack’s Lake where she took the 20 samples she needed for her project. “It was raining. It was windy. I didn’t want to be out here.”
Lesser used a soil core sampler to collect 20 samples down to a depth of 20 centimeters, then carefully divided them into 2-centimeter increments and transported the samples for analysis to Washington State University’s Nuclear Radiation Center in Pullman.
In the lab, Lesser was able to determine how much cesium-137 was present at various soil layers above and below the ash layer from the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. Cesium-137 is a radioactive isotope that’s one of the main components of fallout after nuclear weapons testing and accidents like those in Chernobyl and Fukushima.
“Because of the layer of ash, we could determine how much cesium had fallen here before and after 1980,” Lesser said. “It can be used to study erosion and how the climate is changing due to drought, temperature and wind.”
At WSU, Lesser worked with Donald Wall, director of the Nuclear Radiation Center.
Wall said staff at the lab showed Lesser how to use the instrument she needed and that she spent about four days there.
“Because what she’s looking for is such a tiny amount, it takes two days to run one sample,” Wall said. “Staff ran some of the samples for her and showed her how to get the data from the instrument, but she did all the calculation herself.”
Lesser has just accepted a Distinguished Regents Scholar full-ride scholarship in engineering at WSU, and Wall immediately offered her a job in the lab.
Wall said Lesser’s research may qualify for publication in a scientific journal if she incorporates more samples taken in different locations.
“She really stands out,” Wall said. “Kids like her are very fun to work with. I am very much looking forward to having her back.”
Wehr said Lesser has been dedicated to her research, though he did have to push her a little at first.
“She wanted to do the same research on trees, but there is only one lab that can do that,” Wehr said. “It was impossible.”
Wehr traveled with Lesser to New York for the Genius Olympiad.
“It was incredible for her to get to go,” Wehr said. Students from more than 69 countries and 35 states competed at the Olympiad.
Lesser said she had a roommate from Vietnam and played table tennis with students from Paraguay.
“Some of the judges were from Japan and they got very interested because I mentioned Fukushima,” Lesser said. “When they all liked my project, I knew I got the science right.”
Lesser was just back in Marlin for a couple of days after WSU’s student orientation and before she headed off to Atlanta for a different competition with Future Business Leaders of America.
Lesser said she’s thankful that her school has been flexible and let her travel to science competitions, and she’s grateful for Wehr’s prodding.
“Mr. Wehr has been so supportive,” Lesser said. “He knows just how to motivate us students. Everyone should have teachers like him.”
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