Thursday, June 04, 2015

The Future of Science is Bright

Too often predictions of the future are dystopian, full of daunting challenges due to climate change, exponential population growth, environmental disasters, and economic woes.  Finding solutions to these problems seems so hard, but this last month I was able to peek into a much more hopeful future at the Intel Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF), where Monsanto sponsors a special award for plant science. I was a judge for the award and helped one day at a booth in the expo hall to talk to the thousands of parents, students and teachers about Monsanto. One day was open to the public and there were a lot of questions about genetic engineering, Monsanto, and plant breeding.

 Intel sponsors this science fair together with the Society for Science and the Public (SSP) for some of the brightest students from around the world.  This is the world’s largest international high school science competition with approximately 1,700 high school students from over 75 countries.  Each participant has already won their regional science fair or national fair and came to Pittsburgh to compete for around $4 million dollars in prizes.  We met students from the USA, Saudi Arabia, Korea, Japan, Russia, Egypt, Indonesia, South Africa, Thailand, Ireland, and many other countries.

As I wandered the two huge halls I was so impressed with the breadth and depth of the research presented by students that ranged from 10-17 years old.  Research topics covered everything from demonstration of how to build a trinary computer using Legos®, a method for improved silk production, 3-D printing custom implants and prosthetics, a homebuilt PCR machine with improved algorithms for controlling temperature, improved airplane wing design, environmental studies on changes in ocean pH and flora due to global warming, the mechanism for folding of cotyledons in radishes, and so many others. I kept thinking that many of these students had done Ph.D level science as high school students. 

After some significant deliberation, we chose the 2015 ISEF Monsanto Special Award winners:

1st place --- Anna Marie McEvoy --- Drogheda, Ireland.  Aetiology of ‘bleeding canker’ disease of horse chestnut trees. Anna McEvoy noticed a tree growing by her school with an oozing disease lesion.  She wondered what it was and how common it was.  She catalogued and sampled thousands of trees throughout Ireland, cultured the diseased regions to find the candidate pathogen, sequenced its genome, compared the genomic sequence to other available sequences to potential origin of the disease, and developed PCR markers that could be used to quickly identify the disease in the future. 

2nd place --- Saumya Ramadugu Keremane --- Riverside, CA. A rapid field detection of Liberibacter bacteria using lateral flow technology. (She was our 2014 3rd place winner.) She worked to develop methods to detect citrus greening bacteria prior to the development of symptoms.  She made labeled primers and a single amplification PCR using wax and a coffee cup.  The results are read similar to a commercial pregnancy test. If farmers tested trees prior to the development of symptoms they could potentially remove and replant those trees before it spreads to the rest of the farm. 

3rd place --- Vasu Chavanasupitchaya, Natchamukda Paibooi, Wanicha Khotwongsa --- Khonkaen, Thailand. The effect of crude extract of Imperata cylindrica and the survival and growth rate of Nilaparvata lugens Stal and its impact on predatory insects of Nilaparvata lugens Stal eggs. This team from rural Thailand noticed that rice pests avoided a weedy grass growing in their fields.  They made extracts from the plant and tested efficacy of the extract as a pesticide on replicated field trials on their own farms and in larger field level tests in four locations.

We also gave out 12 honorable mentions.  We really wished we could have given awards to them all.  There were that many great presentations.  The Society for Science has descriptions of the grand award winners:

It is a hopeful future with such hardworking and bright young scientists.  I came home buoyed up with optimism.  

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