Minnesota teens Rena Weis and Michelle Campeau will be among 18 girls presenting their research at a national biotechnology competition in Chicago on Saturday.
Weis, a 12th grader at New Prague High School, and Campeau, a 10th grader at Mayo High School in Rochester, will compete in the BioGENEius Challenge against students from across the country.
Girls make up more than half of this year's 30 BioGENEius participants, organizers said, and the number of female participants has been rising in recent years. Janelle Curtis, vice president for programs at the Biotechnology Institute, which runs the 20-year-old BioGENEius Challenge, said the early years of the competition saw more boys than girls participate.
"This will be my seventh competition with the institute, and I've seen even in my short time with the institute more of a balance of females versus males," Curtis said. "We're really excited that we're seeing a lot of diversity both in gender as well as overall diversity."
The trend of more girls participating in high level science competitions has been demonstrated over the past several years. Girls swept both the grand prizes in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Techology in 2007 and Google's first international science fair in 2011.
Curtis said a push about a decade ago to encourage girls to pursue science careers has led more girls to participate in science competitions. She said girls also have more female professionals as role models.
"There are a lot of female mentors — teachers, as well as scientists both in academia and in industry who are choosing to mentor students," she said. "Obviously it's not choosing just to mentor female students, but I do think it helps because what it does is provide someone to look up to for these girls and to show that it's possible."
Weis, who plans to attend the University of Minnesota next fall, said she first became involved in science fairs in fourth grade. A friend's grandmother coordinated the program and encouraged Weis to participate, and Weis's parents also encouraged her interest in science from an early age. Gender has never been top of mind, she said.
"I'm going to do it regardless, but actually when I look around at the science fairs, it's pretty equal for girls to boys," she said.
New Prague High School Principal Tom Doig confirmed that participation is fairly even, but he said girls have been the classroom stars.
"Over the past five to seven years, the girls have been more the achievers academically," he said. "We still see boys getting high ACT scores, but they don't achieve as much within the classroom."
The trend has been seen elsewhere and is the subject of various academic studies.
At the Minnesota State Science and Engineering Fair run by the Minnesota Academy of Science, participation among girls and boys has been fairly equal over the last decade, said Lise Weegman, the fair's director.
"Some years it's more males, some years it's more females. It evens out," she said.
Weis and Campeau will present their research Saturday for a chance at being among the 10 students selected for an international biotechnology contest. All of the students in the competition have been doing graduate level research that has applications in areas such as health care, agriculture and the environment.
Weis has been studying a substance called biochar, which is produced from bio waste like wood shavings and corn stalks. She added biochar to soil in plots at her family's hobby farm to see how it affected soil greenhouse gas emissions.
"I was looking at methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide emission rates from the soil when biochar was present and when it was not present. I actually found reduced methane emissions, so that was really exciting for me, because methane is a leading greenhouse gas," she said.
Weis, who did the research with help from a U.S. Department of Agriculture internship, said there's plenty more to explore about the benefits of biochar, including the possibility of helping soil retain moisture in drought-stricken areas.
Campeau's research has focused on honey produced from Manuka tree nectar in New Zealand and Australia. According to her research, the honey has shown the ability to fight certain types of infections.
Campeau told the Post-Bulletin of Rochester that she's had access to research and instruments through her mentor and mother, Robin Patel, who directs the Mayo Clinic's Infectious Diseases Research Laboratory.