Sara Volz, a 17-year-old high school student from Colorado, received top honors and a $100,000 check Tuesday at a science fair for pioneering a technique to dramatically boost oil yields from algae, a crucial step in the economically viable production of biofuel from the plants.
Her technique involves the use of a chemical to artificially select populations of algae cells with high oil content. She did all the work in a makeshift lab under her loft bed in Colorado Springs.
Volz, a senior from Cheyenne Mountain High School, was among 40 finalists who gathered in Washington, D.C., for the Intel Science Talent Search. The annual competition identifies some of the nation’s most promising young scientists and innovators.
The finalists were narrowed down from 300 semifinalists and more than 1,700 entrants from around the country. Participants in the 72-year-old competition have gone on to win seven Nobel Prizes and 11 MacArthur Foundation Fellowships, among other honors.
Second-place honors and $75,000 went to Jonah Kallenbach, 17, of Ambler, Pa., who built a computer-science tool for predicting protein binding for drug therapy. The tool may open the door to new treatments for diseases such as breast cancer, ovarian cancer and tuberculosis.
Third-place honors and $50,000 went to Adam Bowman, 17, of Brentwood, Tenn., who successfully designed and built a compact and inexpensive, low-energy, pulsed plasma device. The technique should allow plasma research to be conducted in small-scale operations and even high school labs. Plasma applications range from semiconductor manufacturing to nuclear physics.
The talent search is a program of the Society for Science and the Public, a non-profit organization that advocates for public engagement in scientific research and education. According to the Intel Foundation, the competition’s sponsor, the prizes are an investment in America’s future.
“It’s crucial to U.S. innovation to bring greater attention to math and science achievement, encourage more youth to embrace these fields, and demonstrate the impact these subjects have on our country’s future success,” Wendy Hawkins, Intel Foundation executive director, said in a news release.
Other top honors from the competition include:
4th place: Hannah Larson of Eugene, Ore., received a $40,000 award for her research of an abstract mathematical structure that’s important in many areas of theoretical physics and computer science.
5th place: Peter Kraft of Munster, Ind., received a $30,000 award for his synthesis of 10 new coordination polymers, which are massive molecules with complex network structures that have applications in gas purification and the storage of hydrogen in fuel cells.
6th place: Kensen Shi of College Station, Texas, received a $25,000 award for his development of a computer algorithm that makes it easier for a robot to avoid colliding with obstacles in its path.
7th place: Samuel Zbarsky of Rockville, Md., received a $25,000 award for his math research that could improve the efficiency of 3-D computer networks.
8th place: Brittany Wenger of Sarasota, Fla., received a $20,000 award for her development of an artificial neural network to help diagnose breast cancer using data from fine-needle biopsy samples.
9th place: Akshay Padmanabha of Collierville, Tenn., received a $20,000 award for his development of an algorithm that detects oncoming epileptic seizures.
10th place: Sahana Vasudevan of Palo Alto, Calif. received a $20,000 award for her math research that proved a new, generalized way to minimize an important function of arithmetic.
We'll have more information, later Wednesday, on the top three winners.
John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News. To learn more about him, check out his website.