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Teen Scientist Wins $100,000 Prize for

Alternative Energy Research


Suzanne Presto
March 15, 2013

Sara Volz of Colorado accepted the top prize in the 2013 Intel Science Talent Search and a
$100,000 award for her alternative energy research in Washington.

But, days before the awards gala, the 17-year-old and the 39 other finalists showed off their
projects to the public at the Intel science exhibition at the National Geographic Society.

OILY ALGAE

On that day, Volz's eye-catching accessory wasn't a first-place medal but dangling earrings
that spelled out "N-Er-Dy" using elements from the periodic table.

The teen described her efforts to increase algae oil yields for use as an economical source
of biofuel.

"I'm trying to use guided evolution, artificial selection, focusing on a population of algae and
trying to make the algae evolve to produce more oil," explained Volz. "So the way I'm doing
that, I'm using a chemical - it's actually an herbicide - that kills the algae if they don't
produce enough oil."

She says the treated algae that survived produced more oil and passed that trait on to their
offspring.

AN UNLIKELY LABORATORY

Volz does most of her research in her bedroom under her loft bed.

"I've got my microscope and my centrifuge and all my flasks, and I sleep on my algae's 16-8
hour light-dark cycle because it's right under me. I have to keep the hazardous chemicals
downstairs," she said.

The executive director of the Intel Foundation, Wendy Hawkins, says the science
competition has provided an outlet for this kind of hands-on research for more than 70
years.

"It's very rare that students have the opportunity to do more in a science class than
memorize formulas and do some cookie-cutter experiments," said Hawkins.

DRY CLEANING TO NOISE POLLUTION

Another competition finalist, Alexa Dantzler of Virginia, analyzed toxins that might be in your
closet.

"I proved that after multiple cycles of dry cleaning, consecutive dry cleaning cycles, that the
amount of perchloroethylene residues actually accumulate in this dry cleaned clothing,"
Dantzler explained, displaying a shirt and graphs depicting her results.

Loud trains prompted finalist Chris Traver to study noise pollution. He relied on fellow New
Yorkers, armed with smartphones, to track noise levels in his community.

"Basically it's called citizen science, which is basically having the general public go out and
record data," Traver said, adding that the technique also can be used to study air or light
pollution.

The 40 teenage finalists, selected from more than 1,700 entrants, inspire U.S. Secretary of
Education Arne Duncan.

"They've had this amazing exposure and opportunity to find their passion and to make a
real difference, I think, not just in our country but potentially across the globe," said Duncan,
who brought his two children to the science exhibition.

SCIENTIFIC BREAKTHROUGHS

Brittany Wenger of Florida, whose passions include research and medicine, placed in the
competition's top 10.

"I taught the computer how to diagnose breast cancer so it could determine whether breast
masses are malignant or benign," Wenger said. "The reason I did this was to try to improve
the diagnostic procedure so that it could be quicker, cheaper and less invasive for the
women involved."

Success came only after she learned from her failed attempts.
"I was just over the moon, shocked," she said, describing the moment she realized that the
computer was diagnosing the masses correctly. "I was very excited. It was really late at
night, so my whole family was in bed, and I was just kind of sitting there bug-eyed. It was
great."

NOBELS IN THEIR FUTURES?

Vincent O'Leary of West Virginia studies the habits of invasive crawfish that threaten the
fishing industry, and his display includes photos of crawfish with radio transmitters attached
to their claws with dental glue.

Wearing a navy blue tie with a red crustacean print, O'Leary explained, "Ultimately this
project is going to lead to ways to predict where they're moving next and create a kind of
proactive method of control."

There is no predicting just how far these young scientists will go in their fields, but, in the
history of the competition, seven finalists have gone on to win the Nobel prize.