Sara Volz started raising algae underneath her bed in the ninth grade, not just to investigate biology as any young scientist might like, but to actually make some real contributions to the emerging technological field of biofuel, one that is struggling to produce a fuel source as cheap as petroleum-based fuels are right now.
I myself had a loft bed when I was her age, and I can attest: they leave a lot of room for activities.
Volz has been raising oil-producing algae, a method of making biofuel that researchers are attempting to refine into complete viability in a number of ways, either by tweaking algae DNA to make them more efficient little oil-makers or raising the algae in an environment that’s best for making oil. Volz took a different, perhaps more Old Testament style approach, though that might not be the best adjective in context. She periodically culled her crop of algae with a pesticide that only kills algae who don’t have enough of a particular enzyme. That enzyme also happens to be important to the algae’s oil-making process.
She told NBC:
The idea is, if you introduce this chemical, you kill everything with really low oil production. What you are left with is a population of cells with very high oil production.
And now, Volz’s crop of very efficient oil-producing algae has won her Intel’s Science Talent Search, a prize that comes with a $100k scholarship. Which is pretty handy, since she’s a high school senior now who’s been accepted to MIT. 100k “will cover a significant chunk of those expenses,” she says. I can only assume that she’ll be taking the top bunk in her dorm room, but that hopefully she won’t be doing any experiments on her roommate, no matter how tempting it might be.