Erica David lives in Pinedale, Wyoming, where winter can bring temperatures of minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 37 degrees Celsius), howling winds, and one heck of a lot of snow. So it was just natural that she chose to study snow for her school science fair in sixth grade.

Now a junior in high school, Erica is in her sixth year of snow experiments, and is well on her way to becoming a snow expert. She started with a basic question: Could snow fences be built to work better?

These important structures (see photos) are used to keep snowdrifts from covering areas like roads or train tracks or to help build up snow where it can help with water shortages in spring when it melts. “Also, I wanted to protect my animals better from blowing snow,” says Erica, who raises goats, sheep, and pigs.

Before she could test fence designs, Erica had to figure out what would act like real snow in her experiments. “I tested flour, sugar, and detergents,” she explains. “I used a wind tunnel to see which of them acted most like snow blown into a fence.” She settled on Cascade dishwasher powder.

Science fairs offer the opportunity to test hypotheses, present findings to judges, and meet other budding researchers. Erica’s many accomplishments include competing at the Discovery Channel Young Scientist Challenge for middle school students and the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, where students from around the world present their science research.

But perhaps the best reward is that her research is already being put to good use. She has come up with an improved snow fence design, and this year she’s helping figure out how to provide water supply to native sage plants, which have been killed off by drilling at nearby natural gas fields. When the drilling is done, Erica hopes to contribute to the work of bringing back the natural habitat, work known as “land reclamation.”

“Science fairs are an amazing experience,” says Erica. “Just pick your true passion and go for it.”

For more about Erica’s work, read "Snow Traps" by Emily Sohn.