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Joplin girl claims agronomy award


It's not easy being successful. Just ask Joplin grad Laine Lybeck, 18, who won a top award from among nearly 1,500 participants from 36 countries at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Cleveland, Ohio last week.

Lybeck won the agronomy award, given to the best experiment in the study of agriculture, for her study of sawfly infestation rates in spring wheat and barley.

It was an impressive achievement, said Lybeck's science teacher, Jeff Wehr. Students from a small town in rural America can be at a disadvantage, particularly in science.

"That makes it pretty rewarding, to know that we're in the basement of a high school and competing successfully with people who have Ph.D.s working with them and million dollar labs," he said.

At the same time that Lybeck was showing up students from around the world, the valedictorian of her class of nine at J-I High School was missing her high school graduation. Her speech had to be recorded and projected on a big screen for the assembly.

The decision was not easy.

"It was a little tense at home," Lybeck said, adding that her mother was hurt by her decision. "It meant a lot for her. She never got that chance to kind of say goodbye and watch me graduate."

"It was very difficult for all of us,"said Wehr, who traveled with Lybeck to Cleveland along with Joplin junior Brenton Pimley, who presented an engineering project in Cleveland as well. "This was going to be her future and she saw that maybe she could start her future now."

Lybeck was also absent from the track this spring, where she sprinted her first three years of high school.

"My coach was really disappointed," Lybeck said.

"I was really surprised because our communities put so much emphasis on sports," Wehr said. "I think it was very mature of her."

Lybeck's sacrifices seem to have paid off, though. First she won the grand prize at the regional science fair in Havre in March - a trip to the international fair in Cleveland. She won the first place botany award at the state science fair in April, won several independent research awards for her project, and also won a spot at the month-long National Youth Science Camp this June in West Virginia's Monongahela National Forest.

Two students from each state are selected to attend the camp, which allows students to work with scientists on different research projects including radio telescopes, and also gives them the chance to tour the White House. They may even meet President Bush, depending on his schedule.

Lybeck also presented last year's project, comparing thyroid cancer rates between Montana and the United States as a result of radiation fallout, at the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium in Salt Lake this spring. In both cases, science has been the Joplin native's ticket.

"I've spent my whole life here, so these are my few trips that I've taken," said Lybeck, who described going to the city as "shocking."

The rewards were great; the process, perhaps, was not so glamorous.

Lybeck spent her afternoons this spring gathering samples of wheat and barley and then cutting them open, looking for the sawfly larvae and signs of the wasps that eat them. The pest costs Hi-Line farmers about 10 percent of their grain yield - about $30 million in 1995. The farmers use barley around their wheat fields as a buffer to keep the sawflies away: they seem to stay away from the barley, so the wheat is protected. Lybeck wanted to find out if there was scientific truth to the practice.

"The whole point of my project was to find if the barley could be used to control sawflies," Lybeck said. She found significantly lower rates of infestation in the barley fields.

"The farmers should be happy - they can use barley as a confarmers should be happy - they can use barley as a control."

The project made sense for Lybeck, who grew up on her family's farm about 20 miles north of Joplin and often heard her grandfather talking about the effect of sawflies on his fields.

"I just wanted to help him out in any way I could," she said.

Science was not always the obvious choice for the redhead, who wanted to be a lawyer when she was younger because she liked to argue.

"I actually used to hate science with a passion - hate it - but my science teacher knew how to get me interested. So here I am doing science." Lybeck first had Wehr as a teacher in eighth grade. By her sophomore year she was hooked. Gone were her childhood plans to become a lawyer; science was it.

This summer she will continue to compile research, collecting more grain samples from a greater variety of weather conditions and terrains.

"She just has a passion," Wehr said. "That's what I think separates her from the rest. Nobody else will do that this summer."

Of course, Joplin has had science success before, and has sent two other students to the international science fair since Wehr began teaching science there five years ago. "But I've never had a student as successful as Laine. This is the first time we've won a major award at international. No one can touch her - yet."

In the fall Lybeck will be leaving Joplin to pursue a biotechnology degree at Montana State University-Bozeman, but she won't be leaving sawflies completely behind: She has been offered a chance to do research ( in a sawfly research) lab at the university.

"I don't plan on coming right back after college. I can see myself traveling a little bit and doing science research," said Lybeck, who wants to use her science research to confront diseases and other global problems. "Anything that will help someone and the world is what I want to do," she said.


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