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Teen Genius: 5 Promising Scientists Under 20

Who says teenagers can't save the world? These whiz kids are solving some of the biggest challenges in science.

By Erica Westly
Nov 27, 2012 12:00 AMNov 5, 2019 4:33 AM


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Philip Streich, 17 Platteville, Wisconson Nano Entrepeneur

First Steps: Since he was 10 years old, Streich has lived on a farm, helping tend crops and livestock. Homeschooled since the seventh grade, he began taking science and math courses in the ninth grade at the University of Wisconsin–Platteville. There he teamed up with James Hamilton, a chemistry professor who introduced him to the microscopic carbon cylinders known as nanotubes.

The Challenge: Superstrong carbon nanotubes have a wide array of potential applications, including lighter bulletproof vests and more responsive touch screens, but they have a tendency to clump together, which makes them difficult to work with. To solve the problem, chemists had been coating the nanotubes with various substances, but doing so often altered the tubes’ physical and electrical properties, thus limiting their utility. Streich and Hamilton thought there might be a better way: Dissolving the nanotubes in some sort of solvent would keep them from clumping without altering their properties. But no one knew if there was a solvent that could do the job.

The Solution: Streich custom-built a spectrometer to probe the chemical characteristics of the nanotubes. Using these data, he discovered that the solvent N-Methyl-2-pyrrolidinone would indeed dissolve nanotubes. Streich then went on to find more solvents with the aid of the spectrometer. The project won him more than $100,000 in scholarship money, and he and Hamilton published their results[subscription required] last spring. By June Streich was celebrating an additional $50,000 victory at a state business-plan competition for a nanotech start-up called Graphene Solutions, which he had cofounded with Hamilton. “I never dreamed any of this would be possible,” Streich says. “I really credit my parents’ support for allowing me to try homeschooling. If I had been in the regular school system, I doubt any of this would have developed.”

What’s Next: Streich is planning for college, where he hopes to combine his love of science with politics and the humanities.

Eric Delgado, 18 Bayonne, New Jersey

First Steps: Delgado’s curiosity was sparked when, after 10th grade at Bayonne High School, he worked with Jersey City Medical Center researchers investigating the MRSA bug, a cause of antibiotic-resistant infections, especially in hospitals.

The Challenge: Fighting antibiotic-resistant germs means coming up with a way to counter the tricks bacteria use to thwart antibiotics. One trick used by some bacteria is to eject antibiotics through so-called efflux pumps embedded in their cellular membranes. Delgado wondered: Was there a way to disable these pumps? And how could he do such complicated research in a high school lab?

The Solution: Working with pathogenic bacteria would be far too dangerous in a school setting, so Delgado focused on disabling an efflux pump in the common bacterium E. coli. Marie Aloia, a teacher, helped Delgado contact researchers across the country for advice and supplies. One helped him identify lab techniques that would allow him to avoid hazardous chemicals. Another supplied a plant compound (diosmetin) known to disable efflux pumps in other bacteria. “The Internet has definitely made it much easier. You can do things kids from 10 years ago wouldn’t have been able to do,” Delgado says. After school and on weekends for two years, Delgado measured how much antibiotic the organisms pumped out and how much was needed to kill them off after exposure to diosmetin and other candidate compounds. Delgado’s work won fifth place at the Intel Science Talent Search in 2008.

What’s Next: Delgado is currently attending Yale University. “I’ve always been interested in the health sector,” he says. “Having real-world applications helps.”

Daniel Burd, 17 Waterloo, Ontario

First Steps: In 2006 Burd was moved by clutter at home to study plastic-eating microbes. “I just got tired of all the plastic bags falling on my head every time I opened the closet,” he says.

The Challenge: Millions of plastic bags clog our landfills, often finding their way into the oceans and strangling marine life. Scientists estimate that it can take hundreds of years for a plastic bag to completely break down. Burd decided to see if he could isolate naturally occurring plastic-munching microbes and get them to work more quickly.

The Solution: Using supplies and equipment acquired mostly through eBay, Burd collected soil samples, isolated candidate microbes, and grew each in a culture. Then he quantified each organism’s ability to degrade plastic by exposing it to plastic strips. Burd isolated four microbial strains that could degrade plastic, including one that worked particularly well. He experimented with different temperatures and various mixtures of strains until he was able to degrade up to 43 percent of his strips in six weeks—a dramatic improvement over the years it could take in a landfill. Burd’s research won first prize in a Canada-wide science fair last spring.

What’s Next: Burd is continuing his work at his high school, Waterloo Collegiate Institute, where he is a senior.

Anastasia Roda, 19 Lancaster, Pennsylvania

First Steps: For almost as long as she can remember, Roda has loved Barnegat Bay, the coastal area of New Jersey where she spent her summers. At age 15, when she realized just how close the bay was to the Oyster Creek Generating Station, the nation’s oldest nuclear power plant, she swung into action.

The Challenge: Did Oyster Creek have an impact on the bay’s ecosystem? Roda’s goal was to raise awareness in the public and among engineers who design nuclear power facilities. “Once we know about our impact, it’s easier to lessen it,” she says.

The Solution: She spent the next three summers comparing creeks near the power plant with a control creek about seven miles away. She measured water properties from temperature to clarity and did a detailed analysis of microbes and other organisms. Roda found that, compared with the control creek, creeks closest to the power plant had higher temperatures and faster currents, and further downstream they had higher bacteria levels. She remembers how warm the water near the power plant was compared with other parts of the bay. “It was like bathwater,” she says, adding that the creeks’ ecosystems do remain functional, in that they are still host to many organisms. Roda’s work has won her numerous honors, including the American Museum of Natural History’s Young Naturalist Award and a spot in the Intel Science Talent Search finals last spring.

What’s Next: Now at Harvard University, Roda plans to focus on environmental studies, marine biology, and possibly law.

Isha Jain, 17 Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

First Steps: In fifth grade, Jain did a science fair project about the physical properties that make candy either chewy or hard. Her father, a material sciences professor at Lehigh University, invited her to continue working on the project in his lab, and they published their results two years later. By ninth grade Jain was working part-time in a developmental biology lab at Lehigh.

The Challenge: How limbs grow is still poorly understood. Getting a better handle on this process may play a role in healing bone injuries and treating bone disease. Jain tackled the problem by looking at how bone grows in zebra fish fins.

The Solution: Using a number of techniques including fluorescent microscopy, Jain charted the process in the bone cells themselves. Instead of finding a single burst of activity, she documented a series of cellular pulses. Jain’s findings were published in Developmental Dynamics and won her a $100,000 scholarship at the 2007–2008 Siemens competition. She credits her success to starting so young. “I always liked science and math, but without being immersed in research, I wouldn’t have known it was what I wanted to do,” she says.

What’s Next: Jain is now a freshman at Harvard and plans to go to medical school.

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