|Rhonda Schafer-McLean (right) has learned many practical lessons from participating in science fairs—how to set and meet goals, become a better communicator, be entrepreneurial—and has passed her love of science on to her daughter Riley (left).
Rhonda Schafer-McLean, PhD ’03 and MD ’05, was seven years old when a neighbor boy in her hometown of Wilton, N.Dak., fell into a cistern, and her father Ben was called to help as a member of the volunteer ambulance service. It was one of the first indications of what she would be when she grew up. "I was with my dad when he got the call, and I remember waiting in his truck and thinking, 'Who could help?' she recalled. "'A doctor could.'"
It wasn't the last time she would ask that question. A few years later when she was brainstorming topics for an upcoming high school science fair, she spotted a poster about the AIDS epidemic. This time she looked to herself for the answer, asking, "How can I help?"
The introspective question resulted in a project titled, “The Production and Challenge of an Anti-Idiotypic Vaccine for Brucella abortus.” Her efforts led to a protein clone of the original dangerous bacteria that she safely injected back into animals to provide protective immunity. Early work on the project was performed with help from a local veterinarian and family friend. She was later given the opportunity to conduct vaccine biochemistry experiments at North Dakota State University in Fargo before she graduated from high school. She drove the 200 miles each way on the weekends, slept in the lab, and then returned in time for school on Monday
“It was an incredible amount of faith my conservative parents had in me,” she said.
Schafer-McLean was familiar with the science fair circuit, having participated in fairs since she was in seventh grade. Her dad, in addition to being a member of the ambulance service, was also the sole science teacher at Wilton High School in her small rural town of 700 located 25 miles north of Bismarck. She advanced to the International Science Fairs in Houston, Texas; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Knoxville, Tenn.; and Pittsburgh, Pa., from 1986 to 1989. Ultimately, she won first place in the Medicine and Health category and was then chosen as the top project in the entire world. From there, her science fair success began opening doors for her.