Sara Volz of Colorado Springs, Colorado, accepted the top prize in the 2013 Intel Science Talent Search
: a $100,000 scholarship for her alternative-energy research.
But days before the Washington awards gala, the 17-year-old high school senior, along with 39 other finalists, shared her project with the public at the Intel science exhibition at the National Geographic Society.
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 describes 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," Volze says. "So I'm using a chemical — it's actually an herbicide — that kills the algae if they don't produce enough oil."
The treated algae that survives, she explains, produces more oil and passes that trait on to their offspring.
An unlikely laboratory
Volz does most of her research beneath a loft bed at home.
"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," she says. "I have to keep the hazardous chemicals downstairs."
Wendy Hawkins, executive director of the Intel Foundation, says the science competition has provided an outlet for precisely 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," Hawkins says.
From dry cleaning to noise pollution
Another competition finalist, Alexa Dantzler of Virginia, analyzes toxins that might be in your closet.
"I proved that after multiple cycles of dry cleaning — consecutive dry-cleaning cycles — the amount of perchloroethylene residues actually accumulate in this dry-cleaned clothing," Dantzler says, displaying a shirt with graphs that depict her results.
For finalist Chris Traver, it was loud trains that prompted scientific analysis of ambient noise pollution. He relied on fellow New Yorkers, armed with smartphones, to track noise levels in the surrounding community.
"Basically it's called citizen science, which is basically having the general public go out and record data," Traver says, 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, inspired U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to bring his own children to the exhibit.
"They've had this amazing exposure and opportunity to find their passion and to make a real difference, not just in our country but potentially across the globe," says Duncan.
For Brittany Wenger of Florida, whose passions include research and medicine, it was computer science that placed here 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 says, describing the moment she realized that the computer was diagnosing the masses correctly. "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."
Future Nobel Prize winners?
Vincent O'Leary of West Virginia, whose display includes photos of crawfish with radio transmitters attached to their claws with dental glue, studies habits of invasive crawfish that threaten the fishing industry.
"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," says O'Leary, who wears a navy blue tie with a red crustacean print.
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.