NewBIO 2008: WA kids wow biotech
Interview by Kate McDonald, Australian Life Scientist, 19/06/2008
Two West Australian students have placed third and fourth in the International BioGENEius Challenge, an annual competition for high school students organised by the US Biotechnology Institute.
Sixteen-year-old Oliver Tester, a year 12 student from Murdoch College, a high school located on the Murdoch University campus, and 17-year-old Bindhu Holavanahalli, then at Shenton College in Perth but now a first-year law/science student at the University of WA, placed third and fourth respectively in the competition.
WA was the first state or country outside of the US and Canada to compete in the program. Special mention was made of the two WA finalists at BIO 2008 in San Diego, where the winners were announced.
"Thanks for sending only two of them," one observer quipped.
Oliver's project used proteomic analysis and mass spectrometry to differentiate and test the purity of subterranean clover seed. Clover is a common feedstock but some varieties are high in oestrogen and can cause infertility in sheep.
Oliver worked with mentor Adjunct Associate Professor Chris Florides, MD of Saturn Biotech, based at Murdoch University, to obtain the molecular weights of peptides within the seeds and has now developed a library of markers to identify each variety.
The new technique has reduced the testing time from six weeks to two days.
Bindhu's project used Affymetrix's GeneChip technology to understand the effect on table grapes of sulphur dioxide, used as a preservative, and resveratrol, a potential alternative.
Working with Dr Aneta Ivanova of the ARC Centre for Plant Energy Biology at UWA, Bindhu found that sulphur dioxide may be fuelling the synthesis of antioxidants in grapes, while resveratrol might be slowing down grape metabolism, increasing shelf life.
WA chief scientist Professor Lyn Beazley said the knowledge will be vital to many sectors, particularly agriculture.
"Their research has the potential to directly benefit consumers and agri-business, amazing outcomes from two Western Australian students," she said.
Part of the duo's prize was a trip to BIO, accompanied by parents, one little sister, the odd science teacher and the students' mentors. One of Oliver's teachers, Helen Hawley, science learning area co-ordinator at Murdoch College, said most students who entered the competition were gifted and talented, but these two stood out from the rest for their enthusiasm and dedication.
Aneta Ivanova said that while Bindhu's scientific work was quite excellent, her confidence and public speaking skills were an extra element that few possess.
Oliver is set to continue his science education at university next year, while Bindhu is weighing up science and the law. Ivanova expects her to combine both.
The overall winner of the competition was 18-year-old Mingjuan Zhang, a senior at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in the US, for her project characterising a synthetic microbial pathway for the production of bioplastics.
Second place went to Timothy Chang, 16, of the well-known Stuyvesant High School in New York for his project on the kinetics of bioremediation and electricity production in a novel microbial fuel cell.