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EU Contest for Young Scientists Brings Out Varied Talent - 2003-09-26

High school students from Germany and Hungary have won the 15th European Union Contest for Young Scientists in Budapest. The winners submitted projects ranging from plasma loudspeakers and inexpensive microscopes to advances in genetic engineering. Entries came from mostly European countries but also from China, Japan, Korea and the United States.

Genetic engineering to determine intracellular ph might not be the hobby of most teenagers, but it is a major preoccupation for 19-year-old Jana Ivanidze from Germany.

Her enthusiasm for this project was rewarded by a jury with one of the top prizes at this year's EU contest for young scientists. The $6,000 prize money, she says, will go straight back into her research.

"I will continue working on my project and establish the simple organism I worked at as a model for communication between cells," she said. "Maybe it will encourage more girls or young women to participate in science. It's definitely necessary." Her love for science is shared by another young German, 18-year-old Uwe Treske, who developed a low-cost, scanning tunneling microscope. The jury was so impressed with the microscope, which Mr. Treske says will cost about $50 to make, it gave him the top prize in physics.

"Other professional instruments cost 20,000 and more euros," said Uwe Treske. "You have self construction projects [advertised] on the Internet, but they cost 1,000 or more euros, too."

Several companies, impressed with what they saw in this year's competition, have already approached some of the young scientists with business propositions.

One of them is 19-year-old Hungarian, Gabor Nemeth. He won the top prize for his advances in the developments of plasma loudspeakers.

Bos: Did you already receive orders from companies?

Nemeth: "Yes, of course. From Germany and from Hungary, of course, and from other countries. But I am too young."

Legal experts agree the young inventors should be cautious in signing any business agreements. The head of the European Patent Office, Jan Steenbakker, warned the youngsters to seek advice before signing anything.

Nobel laureate Ivar Giaever who came to Budapest to inspect the projects, says he is impressed with much of what he saw. But the Norwegian-American says not all contributions were that noteworthy.

"For me the projects are very uneven," he said. "Some are really superb and some are not so good. And I am a science judge in many contests in the United States. And what I am sometimes worry about is how much the father and mother has contributed to the project."

Mr. Giaever, who was the joint winner of the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physics, says he is also concerned about the diminishing interest in science among the young.

"The sports people now have taken over," said Ivar Giaever. "I am going to Norway and you have to be a soccer player in Norway otherwise nobody talks to you. So I think young people have many more opportunities now. And the other things people like to do I see [with] my grandchildren. They like to be singers and guitar players, and that is even easier than being a soccer player because they don't have to train."

The director-general of research at the European Commission, Achilleas Mitsos, shares Mr. Giaever's skepticism, and suggests more needs to be done to dispel the image of scientists as oddballs spending their lives in obscure research.