The path to scientific stardom must begin somewhere, and for Lauren Ejiaga, it began in her mother’s garden. While only a tot, Ejiaga would be in charge of watering long rows of corn, cucumbers, okra and other summer vegetables in the garden leading to a love of plant life. That early connection to the environment led to winning accolades for scientific inquiry while still in elementary school.

Now a freshman at Benjamin Franklin High School, Ejiaga started winning science fair prizes – local, regional, then state, then all the way to Washington, D.C. – while still attending Lake Forest Charter School. By the time she left middle school, she had won a $10,000 STEM talent award called the Broadcom MASTERS, a prestigious national award for middle schoolers given to promote science. MASTERS is an acronym meaning Math, Applied Science, Technology and Engineering for Rising Stars.

Ejiaga credits these successes to her mother’s natal connection to the earth, which she passed on to her daughter. “Mom was born on Earth Day,” Ejiaga said. “I love nature.”

So, when she entered the school’s required science fair competition, it was only natural to focus on sunlight and plants. She studied the impact of ultraviolet radiation on green plants, specifically pansies, a cool-season flowering plant. The success of her project, “Ozone Depletion:  How It Affects Us,” won prizes. She was one of 30 finalists to travel to Washington D.C. to compete for the award last year. The Society for Science & the Public, the award’s sponsor, notes that the 30 finalists were chosen from 2,348 applicants from 47 states.

Set up similar to reality TV competitions, such as HGTV’s celebrity-led house renovations and the BBC’s “The Great British Bake Off, competitors were given challenges to perform. One challenge involved building a one square-foot, motorized rover that could collect sediment. She and her teammates named their completed rover “Elephant Centaur” because of its suction trunk.

By the time the big reveal came, Ejiaga had forgotten the purpose of her journey. “I was having so much fun I forgot that it was even a competition,” she said.

Ejiaga hasn’t decided how to use the $10,000 prize money. Restrictions on expenditure means that eventually it’s likely to be used to pay college expenses or to conduct further scientific research. At the moment, a medical field career is her goal, as is studying at a top university such as Johns Hopkins, Yale or Harvard.

The daughter of Nigerian immigrants, Ejiaga lives in New Orleans East on a five-acre tract of land near Pontchartrain Lake. Her father, Romanus, is a former director of the Center for African and African American Studies at Southern University at New Orleans. Her mother, Mayrie, a social worker, no longer plants the laborious garden. She turned to raising 45 goats and two sheep, another farm activity that explains her daughter’s lifestyle habits.

Each day Lauren Ejiaga rises at 4 a.m. to study because she would rather spend her evenings reading historical fiction such as “Number the Stars,” a novel by Lois Lowry about a Jewish girl who escaped Denmark with her family during World War II. She also unwinds by watching YouTube videos.

“I don’t love school,” she said. “It’s stressful. But I enjoy going to school. I like learning new ways to solve things and learning about the world.”