Growing Up with Science

Intel STS 2013 finalist Sara VolzThis post was written by Sara Volz, a finalist in the 2013 Intel Science Talent Search, the nation’s most prestigious pre-college science competition. Intel STS alumni have made extraordinary contributions to science and hold more than 100 of the world’s most coveted science and math honors, including the Nobel Prize and the National Medal of Science. Learn more about Sara and the other 2013 Intel Science Talent Search finalists here.


I never could have predicted how much research would change my life—not when my first-ever science project, entitled “Which Freezes Fastest—Water, Milk or Juice?”, won my school’s kindergarten division by dint of being the only entrant; not when, as a 6th grader at the state fair for the first time, I was in awe of the top senior high projects; and not even when my stunned footsteps finally found the main exhibit hall of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

I found my passion in seventh grade—alternative energy—and it simply hasn’t left me alone. My work on algae biofuels for the past four years has consumed my life, and my bedroom. I’ve spent a good portion of my high school career begging, borrowing, and stealing saving for the materials to convert my room into a homespun laboratory. I’m fairly proud of the result: it comes complete with an appallingly clattery old centrifuge, glassware I got for my birthday, a microscope I got for Christmas, a rather handsome set of micropipettes, and, of course, the requisite bubbling flasks of green goo!

Some people have asked me what inspired my ideas and how I stumbled across a topic that has been so perfect for me. Upon reflection, I realize that in any given year, the truth is I’ve never been all that confident about my project. I always felt like my work wasn’t coming together—I wasn’t getting the answers, or the experiment didn’t work out right, or the analysis still had one or three or ten kinks to be worked out—but I kept plugging away.

My battered notebooks come everywhere with me. I’m persistent in asking for help—the Internet is my best friend in looking up research papers and emailing scientists with questions and for the chance to do some really cool work. This doggedness, more than anything else, has paid off. Thanks to meeting some very generous and wonderful researchers, I can now drive up to a university a few days a week to do chemical analyses, travel a few hours to a farther institution for molecular work, and simply go home to do growth experiments.

The past year has felt a little unreal to me: starting with a summer at the Research Science Institute (the best six weeks of my life, with amazing research and the amazing-er people), building with the news of my acceptance for undergraduate study at the beautiful Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and culminating with being named an Intel Science Talent Search finalist.

My algae have introduced me to a whole new world of vibrant new people and opportunities that I can’t wait to meet.