Updated: March 13, 2013 at 12:00 am
All that yucky green stuff that has been percolating in vials in Sara Volz’s bedroom and on her mom’s kitchen counter is worth $100,000.
The Cheyenne Mountain High School senior has won the top award in the Intel Science Talent Search, considered the most prestigious and demanding high school research competition in the country.
Her project involves increasing the oil content of algae to create an economical source of biofuel.
“Her research on a novel method has potential to make a serious impact on a critical global challenge,” said Elizabeth Marincola, president of the Society for Science & the Public, which sponsors the program with the Intel Foundation. “Sara’s work demonstrates how a young person who is fascinated by science can work with a few sophisticated resources and have real impact on society.”
Not bad for a kid whose first project in kindergarten was to discover which liquids froze faster — orange juice, water or milk.
Sara, 17, has spent four years on the algae biofuel project and has garnered beakers full of state and national awards. But as her mother Pattye Volz said, “This is the pinnacle.”
In an interview Wednesday Sara said, “It doesn’t seem real. I’m still feeling like I don’t deserve it. The others are doing such amazing work. I felt like I was with the future of the world here seeing what they are doing.”
There were more than 1,700 students entered in the contest, and Sara was among the top 40 who were invited to Washington, D.C. The top 10 finalists received a total of $640,000 in prizes money.
“Oh, gee, this is just awesome news,” said Adam Bentson, her physics teacher at Cheyenne Mountain. He noted that Sara gave a presentation to the high school science department recently.
“It’s some pretty advanced stuff. She will certainly make a difference in the world.”
He added, “She is a perfectionist in best of ways. She is a hard worker and takes pride in what she does.”
Sara’s project revolves around the fact that algae produces oil that can be converted into sustainable renewable fuel. But it is very expensive. She has laboriously used artificial selection to grow algae cells that have high amounts of oil that could make the biofuel more economical.
The 40 finalists spent a week in Washington, D.C. where their work was on display at the National Geographic Museum and where they met with world class scientists and President Obama.
The contest is part of a nationwide push to get students more interested in math, science, technology and engineering. Winners over the past decades have gone on to capture seven Nobel Prizes, two Fields Medals, five National Medals of Science and 11 MacArthur Foundation Fellowships.
Superintendent Walt Cooper of Cheyenne Mountain School District 12 said he started sending out emails at dawn. “It’s fantastic. It shows our kids how important and how lucrative it can be to chase their passion whatever it is.”
Sara did most of her research at home, but for some technical aspects, she worked at the Air Force Academy’s Life Sciences Research Center with Dr. Donald Veverka, via a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with her high school, academy officials said. She also worked in the lab of Dr. Stephen Chisholm at Colorado State University.
Sara’s mother and father, David Volz, a local veterinarian, attended Tuesday’s elegant awards dinner in Washington, D.C., where Sara’s award was announced.
Sara wore a floor-length lavender formal, the tables were full service with glassware and endless silverware; there was filet mignon and gourmet side dishes. Dessert was a cake with pudding filling with chocolate, cherries, coconut and white chocolate straws on to top, an impressed Pattye Volz said.
But Sara said in an interview that she could not remember a single thing that she ate.
Her parents were not allowed to sit at her table. She and the other finalists were seated with dignitaries. “I was sitting with some Intel scientists who had presented their work to us earlier in the week,” Sara said. ”It was so amazing.”
She explained the big moment: “In my dream of dreams I was hoping for a 10th place. But they kept naming others and I told myself, OK, I didn’t win anything. But this is an incredible experience anyway. I was happy with what I had.”
When the second place winner, Jonah Kallenbach of Pennsylvania was announced, Pattye Volz jumped up and applauded. He is a close friend that Sara met through competitions. He received $75,000 for a bioinformatics study that could open doors to treatment of diseases, Intel officials explained.
Then they announced Sara as top winner.
“My eyes popped. What on earth? I started shaking and someone asked me if I was OK. I said, ‘Yes, I’m good,’” Sara said.
Down in the audience, her parents were feeling much the same.
“We were stunned,” said Pattye Volz. “I walked up and took a photo of her on stage. There were balloons dropping all over her.”
Then her daughter was whisked away. In the tightly orchestrated media aftermath, she would not see her daughter until she returned to Colorado Springs.
But she did get her on the phone for a couple of minutes during an ice cream social after the banquet. “She said ‘Mom I can’t talk now we are playing Pictionary and it’s my turn,’” Pattye Volz laughed. “They are just typical kids.”
Sara will attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has received other scholarships. She wants to study biochemistry and do research.
She hopes to do more on the algae biofuel.
But first things first. It’s back to high school.
“I have a math assignment that I have to finish. I’ve got to get on that.”
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