Moscow High School junior Nicole Xiao placed first in one of Idaho’s three regional science fairs and has qualified for an international competition in May.

Xiao won the Best in Fair award at the Northern Idaho Science and Engineering Fair in March. Xiao said the award is equivalent to first place and includes a $500 cash prize. She has qualified for the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair in May.

Xiao’s project looked at ways to reduce upward leaf-curling, or “leaf hypnosty,” in tomato plants through genetic and molecular engineering techniques. She said leaf hypnosty typically occurs in environments with high heat and elevated levels of carbon dioxide — two factors that will be exacerbated by the effects of global climate change.

“Leaf hyponasty is bad for tomato plants because it results in growth retardation, which overall, can decrease crop yields,” Xiao said in an email. “Essentially, the overarching idea is using genetic and molecular engineering techniques to create transgenic tomato plants that better adapt to climate change.”

May’s international competition will be held virtually this year because of the pandemic. The event typically draws more than 1,500 students from roughly 70 countries every year and participants compete for a slate of prizes that includes scholarships, tuition grants, internships and scientific field trips. Top prizes include one scholarship worth $75,000 and two worth $50,000 apiece.

“(It) is arguably the most prestigious science fair for high schoolers,” she said. “The caliber of projects that attend (the fair) is very high.”

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