To talk with Sara Volz, you quickly know two things—she’s like an average teenager and she isn’t. In between pop culture references you’ll hear words like “conundrum” peppered into her conversation. And, if you looked under her bed during her high school years, you would have found algae. Insert teenage smelly sneaker joke here—but the joke is on you. Her research has been taken seriously by energy experts in the area of alternative fuel, she won the Intel Science Talent Search, and, as of this writing, Volz is six days away from graduation. In other words, she has the world on a string and she hopes to fuel it.
In case you’re assuming she’s new to serious scientific research, guess again. She started thinking about alternative energy in seventh grade. Most of us were thinking about whether our locker combinations started with a right turn or a left. “I heard my neighbors were making biodiesel out of vegetable oil,” she says. “I was really into it.”
She spent the next few years learning as much as she could about the subject. Perhaps her greatest barrier was she was so far away from top labs, living in Colorado Springs, CO.
Winners of Intel Science Talent Search. First-place winner Sara Volz (center), second-place winner Jonah Kallenbach (left), and third-place winner Adam Bowman (right). Image: Intel Foundation
But it turns out the lack of resources were a plus. It caused her to keep it simple, where many of the great discoveries lie. Flasks were begged for, sundry equipment was utilized, and even her bed became a loft so she could have room for test tubes. “They were everywhere,” she says. “My mom was not happy.” That's not to say her parents weren’t thrilled with her ambition, realizing that she wanted her sports days traded in for science. “I didn’t have to worry about having their support,” she says. “Some kids have that problem, but they were amazing.”
It’s not as if her results came right away, however. “Working with algae is difficult,” she says. “You have all of these protocols in molecular biology. It’s sensitive and sophisticated. I had algae dying on me all the time. Lots of experimentation. I just kept trying different things.”
She received the Intel award for investigating "artificial selection for its potential to increase algae oil yields, which is essential for algae to become an economically feasible source of biofuel." Incredibly, her research showed that only the algae that produced lower oil yields were killed off. At first, she couldn’t trust her discovery, but then it kept turning up the same. Could this survival of the fittest be a fit for fuel tanks? The Intel Science Talent Search committee thought so, handing her what is arguably the number one award for high school science hopefuls in the nation. “I used to dream about just being one of the 40 finalists," she says. "I’m sure I scared the person on the phone with my giddy reaction when I found out.”
But what may be even more surprising, Volz says she’s the only student in her district who participated in science fairs during the school year. People often ask why young women aren’t more involved in events like this, but, to Volz, the question is why both genders aren’t. “We need to encourage people to do science and understand it’s not really studying,” she says. “It is in the beginning but so much of it is discovery. Doing your own thing.”
And, as she heads off to MIT this year, she may become more of an example for other students, and she’s even considering becoming a professor. “I want to share some of what I experienced. It’s given me so much,” she says.
And if algae fuels up our tanks at a low price, maybe the next generation of kids won’t have to clean under their bed when there’s something strange growing. They can just say they want to be like Sara Volz.
So far, that doesn’t seem like a bad goal.
Eric Butterman is an independent writer.
We need to encourage people to do science and understand it’s not really studying … It is in the beginning but so much of it is discovery. Doing your own thing.
Sara Voz, Intel Science Talent Search Winner