Children are naturally curious about the world around them. They’re always asking how does this work and why does that happen? I once heard Buckminister Fuller comment that curiosity makes all children natural scientists. Science and curiosity are entwined like a DNA double helix, but you also need vision – to see what’s possible – and a deep determination to keep going, especially when so many obstacles pop up along the way. And then, add to the equation the three Ps – patience, persistence and passion.
Sara Volz has all of those qualities:
I found my passion in seventh grade—alternative energy—and it simply hasn’t left me alone. I’ve spent a good portion of my high school career begging, borrowing, and stealing saving for the materials to convert my room into a homespun laboratory. I’m fairly proud of the result: it comes complete with an appallingly clattery old centrifuge, glassware I got for my birthday, a microscope I got for Christmas, a rather handsome set of micropipettes, and, of course, the requisite bubbling flasks of green goo!
If Sara Volz sounds young, she is. But at age 17, she’s spent the past four years running experiments to create a better biofuel using biochemistry and algae – aka pond scum. She grows the algae in her room in a mini-lab below her loft bed. To manage her experiments, she put her algae on a schedule – 16 hours of light and eight of darkness – and did the same for herself, “I sleep on my algae’s light cycle.”
Why algae? It could lead us down the road to energy independence. Algae thrives in areas that can’t support other crops and grows on wastewater. I’m sure you’ve seen ponds by the side of the road turned bright green by the organisms. As a fuel, algae is environmentally friendly, as much as 60% of the organism is oil (think vegetable oil), and algae can yield 10 to 100 times more than other biofuels. What’s left can be used to feed animals or to fertilize plants.
Sara isn’t the first to see the potential of algae as a biofuel. Exxon, partnering with genetic scientist Craig Venter, has put up $600 million towards that pursuit. Just this month Venter said they’ll need to force their algae to produce more oil, noting that the solution is still 25 years away. Working on her own, high school student Sara Volz has pointed the way to making it commercially viable.
How did she do it? Starting with Charles Darwin’s concept of natural selection, Sara used a process called “artificial selection” with an herbicide that forces algae cells to adapt, by producing more oil, or die.
It’s like a weed acquiring resistance to herbicide. But in this case, I designed the selection pressure so the resulting population will produce something we want — oil.
Like any scientific effort, there were obstacles:
I always felt like my work wasn’t coming together—I wasn’t getting the answers, or the experiment didn’t work out right, or the analysis still had one or three or ten kinks to be worked out—but I kept plugging away… This doggedness, more than anything else, has paid off.
It paid off by growing algae that produces seven times more oil than untreated organisms. Her work won first place and $100,000 in the Intel Science Talent Search. Next year she’ll be a freshman at MIT.
Too often our high school girls do not feel welcome in the halls of science, which makes Sara a great role model. More impressively, she worked alone when most of the other finalists worked with a school or lab. Her passion to find answers led her to ask other scientists for help and support. And while some turned her down, others were impressed by her maturity, knowledge and commitment.
When I needed the resources or equipment of an actual laboratory setting, I would contact researchers about working in their labs to analyze some of my samples… Some of it was begging and e-mailing lots of people, saying that I’m doing a research project and I’d love you to give me some advice, or let me use some of your neat equipment. You get some closed doors and some wonderful people willing to help.
If you want more, there’s an excellent interview with her here. I like Sara’s story because it’s so inspirational. Armed with curiosity and enthusiasm, she found success because she dedicated herself to her work, understood what she needed to do to make it happen and wasn’t intimidated to ask for help when she needed it. She’s a great example of what can happen when you transform “why?” into “why not?”
Essentially, I am trying to hijack natural evolutionary processes in order to produce a cell line with… high rates of oil synthesis. So far, it is all going fairly well…