It’s been said that Alexander Graham Bell did some of his best work at the kitchen table. Then again, the inventor of the telephone didn’t need his mother’s permission to pursue his passion for science in the family pantry – unlike some of his modern teenage peers.
“We collected a local algae from a nearby spring,” explains Jared Trask, a 17-year-old sophomore at Holy Spirit High School in Conception Bay South, Newfoundland and Labrador. “Then we grew it for 69 days using the ambient heat from the fireplace in my house. My mom said it was OK.”
How fortunate for him that she did. Two months ago, he and his 16-year-old classmate and laboratory partner, Kaitlyn Stockley, took top honours at the Atlantic regional round and honourable mention in the national round of the Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge – an annual competition for secondary students of science – for their work extracting oil from the green sludge. Since then, they’ve been giving interviews and reflecting on the value of an experience which both enthusiastically deem was “eye-opening”, even life-altering.
Which is exactly what the Sanofi event, established in 1994, strives to engender in its young participants: A sense of wonder about “the hard arts” and a conviction that they can make a living, and even the odd breakthrough, in the highly technical fields that are, increasingly, writing the rules of engagement for both developing and mature economies around the world. Indeed, says the organization’s boilerplate, “These competitions are intended to raise awareness among students, educators and the public about the emerging science of biotechnology and its applications in health care, agriculture and the environment. (We) hope to encourage more students to pursue studies and careers in biotechnology, which will be one of the major knowledge-based industries in the 21st Century.”
Among myriad others. Recent studies show that despite the economic turmoil in global markets over the past five years, employers are pinning their long-term hopes for durable commercial success on the innovations that technological advancement generate. And this, naturally, translates into good sustainable jobs now and in the future.
According to research by the Science Council, a U.K.-based think tank under Royal Charter, 20 per cent of Great Britain’s workforce “depends on science skills to do their jobs.” That’s 5.8 million people, a number which the association expects to rise to 7.1 million within 15 years. “Scientists can be found, literally, everywhere in the economy,” Diana Garnham, the Council’s CEO, said in a recent news report. “(The research) demonstrates the value of studying science and indicates how many more people we will need with these skills by 2030.”
Mindful of the global nature of this phenomenon, U.S. President Barack Obama has earmarked $4.35 billion for his “Race to the Top” program, which is designed to, among other things, recruit 10,000 science, technology, engineering and math teachers by the end of the year. Noting in media interviews that “kids are losing a lot of what they learn during the school year during the summer,” he also proposed extending the final public-school semester by a month as one way to halt rising drop-out rates and falling math and science scores on national, standardized tests.
In Canada, where some international exams suggest students are losing their math, science and reading edge to their counterparts in other countries, the federal government has become almost aggressively involved: It recently announced $5.1 billion in new spending under its Economic Action Plan for “science and technology infrastructure, research skills development and commercialization.” According to Industry Canada’s website, “These investments are expected to provide an immediate boost to private sector and academic research, and improve the working environment of researchers over the long term . . . Industry Canada is focused on bridging the ‘innovation gap’ between public and private sector institutions by promoting collaboration at the pre-competitive stage of product development and by fostering strategic partnerships with public and private organizations that encourage a collaborative approach to enhancing Canada’s science and technology capacity.”
None of which may mean much to super-achievers like Trask and Stockley, who have, almost literally, their whole lives ahead of them. But such policy initiatives bode as well for their future job prospects as do their own intellectual gifts and latent accomplishments.
Well, almost as well.
“Our biology teacher gave us the idea of using seaweed to produce ethanol,” says Stockley, who shares the class with Trask. “So we went home and did some research and (came up) with the idea of using algae, instead. All the literature on the subject said this was the best candidate.”
In fact, ExxonMobil is spending $600 million on a ten-year endeavor to extract oil from the stuff. According to a recent article in Businessweek, “The project is a partnership with Synthetic Genomics, a La Jolla (California) company co-founded by human genome pioneer J. Craig Venter. On paper, algae has a lot going for it. It produces energy-storing molecules called lipids similar to those extracted from crude oil. And it can be grown in saltwater on marginal land, so it won’t compete for fresh water or valuable farm acreage. Although the project recently moved out of a San Diego greenhouse to an outdoor facility in Texas, ExxonMobil says billions more in research dollars are needed before it will know whether commercial production is possible.”
Why the investment and why now? “The oil industry has a major incentive for its green spending: the federal Renewable Fuel Standard,” the article reports. “The law, signed by President George W. Bush in 2005, now requires about 15 billion gallons of alternative fuels such as ethanol in the nation’s energy mix annually, and that number is mandated to grow to 36 billion gallons by 2022. (U.S. drivers consume about 134 billion gallons of gasoline a year.) Oil and gas companies, the act says, are among the “obligated parties” to help the U.S. reach these goals.”
Said Wesley Bolsen, chief marketing officer for Codexis (CDXS), a Redwood City (Calif.) enzyme maker that has a five-year-old partnership with Shell: “Inside these companies the thinking is, ‘We can’t get caught out without having an answer and a way to meet our obligations.’ In some ways they can’t afford not to invest. On the other hand, a lot of oil companies think, ‘If we do this right, we can make a lot of money.’”
For Stockley and Trask, the motivations were less mercenary. “The way Exxon and others do it involves a warm environment,” Trask says. “They’re doing it in places like California and Hawaii. Well, we’re in Canada. We’re in Newfoundland. So, we wanted to see if it was practical to use a cold process because that’s what our weather is like. This is the reality that industry would eventually have to deal with.”
Adds Stockley: “Commercialization was front and centre with us, and the cold process put the twist we needed on the experiment. That’s what made it stand out.”
That, and at least one other novelty. “In the first place, they could have grown the algae in greenhouses and really accelerated the growth,” says Robert Helleur, a professor of chemistry at Memorial University in St. John’s who, along with colleague Kelly Hawvoldt (a MUN professor of process engineering), served as mentors to the teenagers. “But that was not what they were after. The other question always is: How do you extract the oil? Usually one would use a solvent. So they did this with one batch. With the other, they used high frequency sound waves that, theoretically, release the oil much better than the solvent. This has been done before. But no one has ever compared the two extraction techniques until now.”
In the end, the team did manage to produce a small amount of oil. But the larger achievement was, in Helleur’s opinion, more durable. “They are an inspiration to us,” he says. “This wasn’t an easy series of experiments, but they enjoyed the challenge. They are fast learners.”
In fact, they are, in every meaningful definition of the word, scientists.
“Jared and I are really interested in science,” Stockley says. “This (experiment) does something that could one day help the environment. It’s a renewable resource that we could use to replace fossil fuel. It’s really interesting to know that even though we are young people, we can still try to make a difference in the world.”
Trask concurs: “The mentors were really great. The competition was really great. The people we got to meet from all over Canada . . . well, it’s been an eye-opening experience all the way around. The fact that we’ve been able to do this and keep our passion for science . . . It‘s just been a great experience.”
As for the future, Stockley says she’s interested in a career in medicine, and Trask cleaves to the idea of becoming a chemical engineer. Still, both are open to whatever opportunities come their way.
“Maybe I’ll want to work with alternative fuels,” Trask says.
“I always like to try new things,” Stockely says.
Oddly enough, so did the man who invented the telephone, and he turned out pretty well, after all.