LOS LUNAS — Los Lunas boasts two finalists in the 2020 New Mexico Excellence in STEM Awards, also known as the STEMYS. The Air Force Research Lab Tech Engagement Office held the annual event via virtual ceremony on June 30.

The annual awards honor students, teachers, volunteers and other New Mexicans doing great things in science, technology, engineering and math education.

Makayla Gates and Melissa Ober both grew up in Los Lunas and have been involved in STEM-related projects for most of their school career. Both are also recent graduates — Gates from Valencia High School and Ober from the University of New Mexico.

Gates won in the category of high school students and is representing the Los Lunas district. She is involved with science fairs and events such as Regeron Science Talent Search.

The prestigious program chooses 40 high school seniors from across the country to participate in the competition. Gates was supposed to attend the program in Washington, D.C., in March but due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was canceled.

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Makayla Gates

She also volunteers for the Autism Society through UNM and works at the Natural History Museum at the Albuquerque Bio Park.

“I always wanted to learn everything about everything, and science allows you to pursue that,” Gates said.

Gates plans to attend New Mexico State University this coming fall to study physics.

“I want to study particle physics,” Gates said. “I like the little things inside atoms and the things you can’t see in a whole different world that’s within us.

“It was great to see my community that has helped me follow what I want to do and ultimately help the community.”

Gates’ passion is to see more representation and diversity in the STEM field.

“I think it’s so cool seeing all the women in STEM and seeing computer science get into schools,” she said. “It’s so important to make this available for everyone who’s interested.”

Ober won in the category of Outstanding Community Advocate. Prior to this year, Ober had been invited to the previous two annual events as a guest because of her business, Science Girl’s Lab. Ober combined her love for science with her love for teaching, all while inspiring the next generation of students through theatrical presentations.

“I firmly believe that information can start with a person just trying to get other people excited,” Ober said. “I then like to engage my audiences with the shows and then hands-on activities.

“I love showing people science through personal interactions. It’s all about creating experiences and moments of joy.”

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Melissa Ober

When she expressed interest in participating in this year’s ceremony, she was overwhelmed with support from the community she had built through Science Girl’s Lab.

“Being able to see that they were willing enough to spend a little bit of their time to nominate Science Girl’s Lab, it was just assurance in itself that what I’m doing does affect the community and people care about it,” she said.

Ober has booked various speaking events ranging from school science demonstrations to birthday parties, to even performing at Explora in Albuquerque. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, in-person speaking engagements haven’t been possible for Ober so she has been providing more online content through YouTube and Facebook called “Science Girl’s Home Lab.” She’s also been helping with summer camps that are now virtually attended.

“It’s a series of videos of experiments you can do at home with the materials people already have,” Ober said. “It’s designed for students who are stuck at home and are needing something to do. The ultimate goal is to bring a positive experience and make it accessible.”

Ober recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and has experience with student teaching and being in classrooms. When she is creating her show, she is better equipped to plan out what will help students and teachers refer back to what they learned during her show.

Ober attributes her success to her faith, family and passion for serving the people around her.

“God has really provided for me and I wouldn’t be doing Science Girl’s Lab if it wasn’t for my community — it was because of them that I got this award. I am thrilled and honored to know that people see my heart for this community.”

She also wanted to recognize her late mentor, Duane Dill, who won the Lifetime Achievement award.

“He taught me at Explora when I was a kid and when I was an intern for them,” Ober said. “For years he taught me and I’m looking at that Lifetime Achievement award as such a beautiful goal for him. He is affecting students and he’s still affecting me through what he taught me.”

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