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Sharing the scientific wealth

Family that does well at science fairs is encouraging other students to give competition a try

April 18, 2012
By Jenny Kirk , Marshall Independent

MARSHALL - Theresa Welu knows the value of being a strong science fair advocate for her children. All four of them have earned the right to compete at the international level.

"As a parent, I've seen my kids grow academically," Welu said. "When a kid finds that one thing that interests them, it's not that they're that smart, it's just that they're truly interested. My kids found their niche. It's fun and exciting for them. I wish more kids would compete at science fairs."

Welu got her wish this past year, when her supportive attitude drew interest from a student outside her family. Welu ended up being a mentor for Seth Johnson, a Lakeview seventh-grader.

Article Photos

Photo by Jenny Kirk
In May, siblings Eli and Samantha Welu will take their team science fair project to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) competition in Pittsburgh, Pa, where they’ll be among some of the best science students in the world.

"I enjoy mentoring," Welu said. "I love seeing that little light bulb going on in their head, when you find that kid who has that spark. They're the kind of kids who want the answer."

Johnson has an inquisitive mind of a science kid, Welu said, pointing out that he'll have to chance to explore and grow for the next five years.

"Seth did a potato (launching) cannon this year," she said. "He did a good job. He's excited about competing at science fairs. He's already working on a project for next year."

Though he was close, Johnson didn't advance past regional competition this year, but Welu's two remaining children at Marshall High School did. Senior Samantha Welu and sophomore Eli Welu teamed up for a project this year, qualifying for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), the world's largest pre-college science fair competition.

"This will be my third time going (to internationals)," Sam Welu said. "It's hard to describe it. You have so many people from so many different countries coming. It's amazing what some of those kids are doing. Their projects are phenomenal."

Because of his age, Eli Welu qualified twice for I-SWEEEP (International Sustainable World Energy Engineering Environment Project) in Houston, Texas. Once he was eligible for ISEF, which is designed for students in grades 9-12, he advanced both years. The experience, he said, has been exceptional.

"You walk through the hotel and all you hear is random different languages all around," he said. "Last year (in Los Angeles, Calif.), they shut down Universal Studios for a day for us. Every single place that offered food, they'd just put free food out for us. It was pretty cool."

Each year, more than 7 million high school students from around the world compete in local science fairs, but only 1,500 of them become finalists who are invited to attend the international event and compete for $4 million in awards and scholarships.

"It's not easy to make it," Theresa Welu said. "You have to have pretty incredible projects to get there. There are 70 countries represented including Japan, China and Brazil. It's the best of the best and the brightest of the brightest. To think of our kids from Milroy competing at that level is mind-boggling. It's a fantastic experience for them."

Welu pointed out that a lot of kids spend time wrestling or playing basketball or baseball. While MHS and Lakeview currently do not sponsor science fairs, she'd love to see them start.

"My kids do the same thing, except they're studying science instead of shooting baskets," she said. "Mine are looking into a microscope, but they put as much into it as basketball practice. We've just done science fairs on our own."

The Welu siblings chose a project together this year since it was a massive undertaking. They focused on "Using Avian Antibodies in Aquaculture to Combat Streptococcus Agalactial and Streptococcus Iniae in Oreochromis."

"There's these two different bacterial strains in these fish that we're working with," Eli Welu said. "We worked with tilapia specifically. We basically wanted to see if we could create a natural product from using chicken antibiotics to combat the two strains, and hopefully cure the fish in a faster time than vaccinating each one individually."

The Welus toured the Renville area Minnaqua facility to familiarize themselves with the fish production processes.

"I was talking to a vet here (at Animal Health Center, where Theresa Welu works) and he was talking about these diseases in the aquaculture industry," Sam Welu said. "We went up there, toured the facility and saw how things worked there."

After getting approval, the Welus spent hours researching and conducting experiments.

"We haven't done live trials on the fish yet," Sam Welu said. "We're testing it in the lab right now. But we took our bacteria, killed it and injected it into chickens, which in turn, produced egg antibiotics in their egg yolks."

On average, Sam Welu said, projects require between 200 and 300 hours. Besides the science knowledge, she said she's also gained public speaking skills.

"My favorite part is that it gives me hands-on experience, with something I am hopefully going to have a career in," she said. "I'm planning to go into either the vet science field or animal science field."

There are 17 different categories students can prepare projects for at ISEF.

"My kids have always done microbiology, animal science, medicine and health or engineering," Theresa Welu said. "But there's plant science, computer science, biotechnology and more. There are so many areas kids could excel and they don't always realize it. A lot of kids think science fair means microscopes and testing, but there's so much more to it than that."

Having a multitude of possibilities to chose projects from each year is Eli Welu's favorite aspect.

"Some kids will work on the same thing five years in a row, but I like switching from different animal to different animal," he said. "I'm doing a turkey project next year."

Eventually, Eli Welu would like to teach mathematics. The siblings' older sister Taylor is currently seeking a double major in ag education and Spanish, while their older brother Brady is pursuing a degree in agricultural engineering.

"The only reason that most kids are in it is because their school does it," Eli Welu said. "They get kids to join. But we're just doing it on our own. We're the type of kids who actually want to do, instead of just having to do it."

This year marks the sixth straight year that Theresa, and her husband John, will accompany their children to the international competition May 13-18, which is in Pittsburgh, Pa. this year. The family made history a few years back when three of the Welu children advanced to the top level in the same year, something that had never happened before.

"I've gotten to know other teachers and parents," she said. "There's surprised when they find out I'm not a science teacher. I tell them 'I'm just their mom and my kids are just interested in science.'"



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