Brussels, 25 Sep 2003
With stars in their eyes, curiosity in their minds and enthusiasm in their hearts, some of the world's most promising young scientists have gathered to compete in this year's European Union contest for young scientists, in Budapest, Hungary.
The competition is now in its 15th year, and has grown in that time so that today a total of 114 young people, between the ages of 15 and 20 and representing 37 countries across Europe - as well as China, Japan, South Korea and the USA - are exhibiting their work. The 75 competing projects are as varied as they are plentiful, covering a wide range of scientific disciplines, from social sciences and astrophysics, to environmental investigation and mathematic modelling.
CORDIS News spoke to some of the contestants and asked them why they decided to get involved in science and how it is shaping their ideas and goals for the future.
Bryndis Guomundsdottir, with her classmates Anna Kristjansdottir and Boovar Sturluson, decided to pursue an interest they had in using hydrogen as an alternative source of energy. 'Hydrogen is a popular topic in Iceland and is seen as the way forward,' explained Ms Guomundsdottir. 'We understand that this is the future and we want to be part of it.' In this context, the group of young Icelanders have come up with the parameters necessary to design a hydrogen house.
The group claims that this is the first time that three alternative energy sources - solar, hydroelectric wind and geothermal energies - have been used together to provide electricity within in a house. Any extra energy that is produced is stored and used to generate a hydrogen fuel cell, which provides energy to run a car or power electrical appliances. While the Icelandic hydrogen house is 30 per cent more expensive than a regular grid-only connected house, the group hopes that their design can be used in a laboratory for future analysis of the technologies used.
Presenting their results and participating in the contest, Ms Guomundsdottir explained, holds as much national importance as it does personal. 'Iceland has been working towards creating a hydrogen economy for the last five years now, by converting its sustainable electric energy into hydrogen. I feel that our project will contribute to this national goal,' she said. On a personal note, Ms Guomundsdottir said that visiting a part of Europe so different to Iceland and meeting the other contestants has been a lot of fun. 'It has been a social experience as well as a scientific one.'
Another group which has been getting into the spirit of the contest is the Dutch entry. Although their project initially began as an investigation into yeast, Vincent Ruigrok and his friend Geert De Veerde discovered that their findings could also be instrumental in shortening the first fermentation process of brewing beer from as much as five days to five hours. ´We never intended to make beer, but we ended up with it,' explained Mr Ruigrok. For research purposes, the contestants took the yeast supplied in a normal beer-making kit, placed it in some protective beads and left the yeast to ferment in a sucrose solution. When protected, the yeast cells are no longer affected by external conditions, and thus their activity increases, resulting in a more efficient fermentation process. The young contestants believe that their method may help reduce production costs and hence, the cost price of a glass of cool, refreshing beer.
Despite the negative response they have received from other students at school about being involved in a scientific project, both contestants say that they are still interested in pursuing a scientific career. Asked why science motivates them, Mr Ruigrok explained: 'I love the experiments and finding stuff out. The process from knowing nothing to having a result is very exciting.'
While many of the projects competing for the grand prize are focused on tackling some of the environmental, technological and health issues affecting our daily lives, one project in particular harnesses scientific methods to help improve the lives of animals other than the two-legged variety. UK contestant Elizabeth Newton designed an enrichment device to improve the nutritional intake of a small species of monkey from the Amazon know as callitrichids. 'Enrichment is all about stimulating animals to display natural behaviour when they are in captivity,' explained Ms Newton. One way of doing this is by providing the animal with a food they eat in the wild. 'Arabic gum is an important supplement for these animals when they are in the wild, but in captivity, they don't know what to do with it,' explained Ms Newton. 'I had to find a way to get the monkeys to feed on the Arabic gum as they would in the wild.'
With this in mind, Ms Newton took an ordinary log, in which she drilled a number of holes and filled with liquid gum. 'Using my device, the monkeys are stimulated as they have to search for the gum,' said Ms Newton. 'When the public come to the zoo, they will see the monkeys behaving as they do in their natural habitat.' The results of Ms Newton's project have been placed in a zoological database to help other zoos wishing to introduce an enrichment solution and needing data to justify its implementation. Ms Newton has already received invitations to work on a number on enrichment projects, including one at Sydney zoo in Australia.
She told CORDIS News that it felt great to be recognised by the scientific community, especially since the project has been a product of her own initiative and interest. Asked why science should matter to us, she said: 'It is important to understand and appreciate the importance of science for the world we are living in, otherwise people won't know how to save species like the callitrichids from extinction.'
However, she feels that more time and effort should be spent on communicating science to the public, alluding to the young scientists contest as a vehicle which could achieve this. 'I really enjoyed presenting my work here. Getting young people involved is a great way of getting across the message of science.'