Harnessing the potential


By Kate Jackman-Atkinson

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There’s nothing like a little world news to make you feel like you should aim higher.  While young people tend to get a bad rap for causing trouble, being disengaged or not contributing to the greater community, today’s young people are also doing some truly remarkable things.

Hearing about what they are accomplishing makes one reflect upon their own contributions.

Each year, tech giant Google hosts a science fair for youth aged 13 to 18.  There are no baking soda volcanoes here, instead, the young scientists are finding solutions to real life problems.

This year’s grand prize was won by a team of three 16-year-old girls from Ireland. Their project was aimed at finding a solution to world hunger. In their project outline, they explain that they investigated the use of diazotroph bacteria as a cereal crop germination and growth aid. 

In their experiment, they used naturally occurring Rhizobium strains of the Diazotroph bacteria family and carried out extensive study to see the impact on the germination rate and associated growth of the cereal crops wheat, oats and barley. They performed detailed statistical analysis on the results to show that these bacterial strains accelerated crop germination by up to 50 per cent and increased barley yields by 74 percent. 

The results the young scientists found could help significantly increase food production as well as reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture through a reduction in fertilizer use.

The winner in the 17 to 18 year old category was Calgarian Hayley Todesco. Her project sought to find a solution to a local problem, the detoxification of tailings ponds.

As part of her project, she designed, constructed and tested the effectiveness of sand filters to biodegrade the toxic naphthenic acids in the ponds.  Her findings showed that this method was 14 times more efficient than the batch bioreactor controls currently used. She notes that this inexpensive and sustainable method could significantly accelerate the detoxification of oil sands tailings.

In 2013, young scientist Jack Andraka recorded at TED talk about the project that won him the grand prize at the 2012 Intel Science Fair. When he was 15, Andraka developed a cheap, non-invasive test for pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer has a low survival rate, mostly because over 85 per cent of patients are diagnosed late.

Andraka’s device uses inexpensive strips of filter paper, carbon nanotubes and antibodies sensitive to mesothelin, which is a protein found in high levels in those with pancreatic cancer. When dipped in blood or urine, the mesothelin adheres to these antibodies and is detectable by changes in the nanotubes’ electrical conductivity. The preliminary tests showed the invention was 100 per cent accurate and produces results earlier than current methods. The test costs just 3 cents.

The stories are inspiring– these truly exceptional young people will change the world. Within our communities, there also exists youth looking to make the world a better place.  If we harness that potential, who knows where it will take us.