Sunday, October 6th, 2013
Elif Bilgin is a 16-year-old, tenth-grade student at Koc High School for gifted students in Istanbul, Turkey, and despite her youth it’s fair to say she already merits the title of scientist — award-winning scientist in fact. Bilgin’s ultimately successful two-year search for a way to make bioplastics material from banana peels earned her a place as one of fifteen finalists in the recently concluded 2013 version of the global Google Science Fair. Further, her project won the Voter’s Choice Award and the Science in Action Award sponsored by Scientific American, which gives her a prize of $50,000 and a one-year mentorship program.
Bilgin originally chose to focus on bioplastic because of its potential for causing a biological shift away from producing plastics based on petroleum, a shift that is already well underway. If, she wrote, “…plastic (a material with such great range of use in our daily lives) can be manufactured by the use of banana peels (a material which is thrown away every day), then this plastic would become a rival to the petroleum-based plastic we use nowadays”.
“The reason why I was able to [make bioplastic from banana peels] was because fruits rich with starch are preferred in the making of bio-plastic and the banana peel is rich with starch.” A more detailed description of Bilgin’s process and her experiments can be found here.
The young lady was working on her project long before she knew about the Google Science Fair. When the project was nearly complete she began looking for a competition to enter. Not surprisingly, she used the Google search engine to look for “science project competitions.” Surely you can guess what came up as the first result. Bilgin calls it a happy coincidence.
The Google Science Fair is an online competition open to student aged 13 to 18 from around the globe. We in America often hear of the decline in the national educational system. It should be of some comfort to know that of this year’s 15 finalists, eight are from the USA, and the winner of the 17-18 age group and the Google Science Fair Grand Prize, is Eric Chen, a 17-year-old junior at Canyon Crest Academy in San Diego, CA.
Chen’s project is Computer-Aided Discovery of Novel Influenza Endonuclease Inhibitors to Combat Flu Pandemic. One of his idols is Dr. Jonas Salk, the discoverer of the world-changing polio vaccine, and Chen has already served as a teaching assistant for college-level classes at his school.
Given the advanced nature of the projects in this competition, using the term school kids to describe the young scientists feels totally inappropriate, but whatever we call them, it is reassuring to know that these youngsters are moving into the scientific mainstream. Kudos to Google and Scientific American for encouraging and recognizing them.
The awards were presented on September 23, 2013 at Google’s Mountain View, CA campus, with all 15 of the finalists brought in for the event. Should you know of a budding scientist that should be involved in the Google Science Fair, the competition will re-open for entries in January 2014. In the meantime, updates are available from Google here.