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This Student's Science Project Was So Cool, it Got Her Into the White House

By Ariel Cheung | April 2, 2015 5:48am

LAKEVIEW — When Lucero Varela began designing her science fair project last year, she had hopes of winning the citywide fair and advancing to the state competition.

Instead, it took her to the White House.

Varela, 17, was a guest of honor last week at the White House Science Fair, where she shook hands with President Barack Obama and chatted with Vice President Joe Biden.

Lake View High School senior Lucero Varela (top row, second from right)  shakes hands with President Barack Obama during the White House Science Fair on Monday, March 23, 2015. (Provided/Lucero Varela)

For Varela, it was one step closer to her dream career; not a physicist or chemical engineer, but a congresswoman.

"I'm really into history, so seeing the president's china and the presidents' pictures and the first ladies, that got me really excited. There's so much history in that house," Varela told DNAinfo Chicago.

Three weeks ago, Varela was invited to present her artificial pancreas model at the National Science Teachers Association. Soon after, her project won second place at the citywide Chicago Public Schools Student Science Fair.

Somewhere along the way, a connection was made, and Varela got an email inviting her to the White House.

"I didn't believe it was real, because that is such a big deal. I didn't want to take it too seriously until I talked to someone," she said. Her teacher confirmed she'd been selected from a pool of CPS students, at which point Varela got, "really, really excited."

While Varela didn't present her project at the White House, she proudly stood behind Obama as he addressed the science fair crowd. Afterward, she and about five other students sat down in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building with Biden, Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

President Barack Obama speaks during the White House Science Fair on Monday, March 23, 2015. Lake View High School student Lucero Varela stands behind him along with other students invited to the White House as guests of honor. (Provided/Lucero Varela)

When Biden started asking questions about the students' projects, "Bolden pointed me out, and I really liked that, because the vice president was talking directly to me," Varela said.

As a senior at Lake View High School, Varela isn't taking a science class, but that didn't stop her from participating in the science fair. She chose a project with personal touch — with friends and family dealing with diabetes, she wanted to design something that would help them.

Her model of an artificial pancreas uses vinegar and baking soda to represent blood sugar and insulin. The electrical circuit she built detects the acidity in the "blood" and, when it gets too low, pumps in baking soda to neutralize it.

"The engineering — finding the right voltage — was definitely the hardest part, because I knew nothing about engineering," she said.

A fully functioning artificial pancreas system — one that both monitors glucose and dispenses insulin — is not yet available, although scientists are getting closer, according to a January NPR article.

For Varela, even the complexities of science fields can't compare with the world of politics. She plans to attend the University of Mississippi next year and double major in political science and international relations.

There's still a way for her to merge the two; at the White House, "they kept mentioning how politics and science go hand-in-hand. Even the president had to know what's going on in the country in terms of science and technology," Varela said.

Varela's passion for politics is "inspiring," said Kristin Hu, who teaches political science at Lake View High School.

"She's exemplary. She's done a great job of building enthusiasm for the political process among our students," she said.

Lucero Varela, a senior at Lake View High School, was all smiles after her visit to the White House. (Ariel Cheung/DNAinfo Chicago)

Through the school's partnership with the Mikva Challenge, Varela worked on Gov. Bruce Rauner's campaign last year. Hu said the campaign, along with the trip to the White House, is just the start for Varela.

"She conducts herself so professionally in every single way. She's very good at kind of assessing a situation and responding in just the right way," Hu said.

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