11-year-old scientist won't let family hardship keep her from succeeding

LAKE CITY, S.C. -- When CBS News first met Olivia McConnell two years ago, she was leading a campaign to make the woolly mammoth the South Carolina state fossil.

Now 11, she’s still making headlines. Olivia and friends Riley Sims and Emily Palmer have won first place in seven science fairs in a row.

Olivia insists they’re a team, but it’s pretty clear who’s in charge.

Their prize-winning experiment begins with the girls swabbing E. coli onto petri dishes. Then, they soak small pieces of paper in a solution of tobacco, place the paper on the E. coli, put it in an oven and wait 24 hours to see if the tobacco kills the E. coli.

Does she think this could actually be a cure for E. coli?

“It could, it possibly could. I hope it can,” Olivia said.

Sound like there’s a Nobel Prize for science in this? 

“You’re thinking what I’m thinking,” Olivia replied.

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Olivia, right, and her partners work on their experiment

CBS News

Anne Jack, a University of Kentucky tobacco researcher, said Olivia has all the makings of a great scientist.

“She is a pretty remarkable young lady,” Jack said. “She has the ability to persevere with something and get it right.”

Persevere just might be an understatement.

Last year, a massive flood destroyed her family’s home and all the tobacco Olivia had so carefully prepared for her project.

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The McConnell family home after a flood

McConnell family

But Olivia didn’t think the experiment was over. 

“I never think that,” she said. “I don’t like to think I can’t do this because everything is possible.”

Where did she get that attitude? 

“Probably from my grandma and my mom. I inherited it from the girls in my family,” she said.

Earlier this year, Olivia and her team, believe it or not, came in second at a science fair. They say a little adversity builds character, but it’s hard to imagine she needs any more of that.

  • Chip Reid

    Chip Reid is CBS News' national correspondent.