Crayfish Research Pays for College

WHEELING – Vincent O’Leary said he never imagined that studying the habits of invasive crayfish in his parents’ basement would lead to a college scholarship offer.

But it has, as the Wheeling Central Catholic High School senior has been offered a full academic scholarship to Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Maybe even more impressive is the fact O’Leary has won nearly $180,000 in prize money and scholarships from winning numerous regional, state and international science competitions.

All from a fascination with crayfish – specifically, the species known as the rusty crayfish, which causes more than $120 billion annually in damages to the environment and industry in the U.S. alone. His research is focused on how to prevent the rusty crayfish and other non-native crayfish from invading new areas.

He’s spent an estimated 6,000 hours in the past three and one-half years on his work, along with being busy at school, participating in choir and also swimming competitively. He is the son of Craig and Emma O’Leary of Wheeling.

O’Leary started looking into the problem his freshman year at Wheeling Central, as he studied crayfish in his basement. He wanted to observe the aggressive behaviors of the rusty crayfish under the hypothesis that the rusty crayfish were outcompeting other, native crayfish by fighting them for resources.

However, after months of watching the crayfish, O’Leary observed they weren’t doing much fighting at all, “which opened up bigger questions.”

“That’s what made me continue with the project,” O’Leary said. “As I moved on and saw these contradictory results, that’s what made it more exciting, that I was actually finding new things that mattered. I was the only person who knew this and I had something to add to the scientific community. I think the real point of science is the curiosity you get from finding new answers and sharing them with everyone.”

That year, his project earned first place at the West Liberty University Regional Science and Engineering Fair, first place in the State Junior Science and Humanities Symposium and ranked as a finalist in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. He won $7,250 in award money and succeeded in a way he never expected.

“When you get to the international level, there are kids who have done nuclear fusion, there are kids who are working out of the top research labs for cancer,” he said. “Here I come in from West Virginia and I’m in my basement watching crayfish fight. A lot of people were drawn into that.”

Since then, the project has grown “in leaps and bounds” and now he is researching how to prevent a non-native species from invading in the first place. Currently, he is trying to predict where an invasive species will go next using computer models in the hopes of preventing the species from invading.

Over the summer, O’Leary spent a week in the field using GPS technology to track the species known as the virile crayfish and its movement in streams, a project that has never before been conducted in North America, not even by professional scientists. He said his science fair experience has made him a much better student.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned from doing science fairs is that it’s really not about the money. … It’s meeting all these wonderful people and I’ve been to California for free three times and that experience is unbelievable,” O’Leary said, referring to his entries in Intel’s international competition. “Also, over the years I’ve seen how it’s helped me in the classroom as well. I’m easily able to write papers now. When you go to these science fairs, you are writing 15-20 page technical papers and then a teacher assigns a five-page paper, that’s no problem for me anymore. It’s been really a good experience.”

O’Leary said before crayfish were even in the picture, he was inspired to enter science fairs from reading the book “Rocket Boys” about Homer Hickam, a teenager in a West Virginia coal mining town who won a National Science Fair gold medal for building rockets with almost no resources.

O’Leary said that kind of passion, above all else, was the key to his own success in science and the reason he has continued to be so dedicated to his work with crayfish.

“I think you have to definitely want to put the work in and you have to want to do what you’re doing. If I didn’t like crayfish, I wouldn’t be able to do it for four years,” he said. “You have to be passionate about what you’re doing and you have to be ready to fail. That’s the part they don’t teach you in class – you have to fail to learn anything.”

O’Leary said his future plans are not yet final, but Drexel is his first choice for college. He plans to continue to study invasive animals and statistics and hopes to take his research after graduation and publish his findings in a scientific journal.

“I’m amazed at what he’s done. I noticed there’s been such a growth in him as a student and also as an individual,” Theresa Fultz, Wheeling Central math teach and O’Leary’s mentor, said. “If you bring up a topic and he’s curious about it, he’ll go as a far as he needs to go to discover the answer to the question. I think he really is inquisitive and willing to take the risk and do the leg work to find out the answers. He’s amazing. He’s a great kid.”