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Algae Girl’s Crusade Continues

Did you know biofuel produced from algae, an abundant form of oceanic plant life, offers a promising solution to reduce fossil fuel dependence? Inspired to preserve the planet for future generations, Sara Volz found a way to increase the viability of algae biofuel to reduce reliance on oil and gas, research which led to her first place win at Intel Science Talent Search1 (Intel STS) 2013 and which she continues to pursue today at MIT.

Though Sara Volz attended a high school that lacked a science research program and a sophisticated lab, her determination to investigate the world around her would not be daunted. Bent on finding a way to improve the viability of algae as a potential biofuel source, Volz assembled her own lab under her loft bed at home, building shelves to hold her vast collection of algae-filled flasks, and adding grow lights, microscopes, and other equipment.

It was there in the green glow of her home lab that she found a potential solution to the problem plaguing other researchers. Though algae were already under consideration as an alternative biofuel source, scientists were looking for a way to boost oil production to make it economically feasible. Volz may have found the key when she discovered an artificial selection method successful in establishing populations of algae cells with high oil content. 

For this research, which Volz pursued throughout her high school career, the young scientist earned awards at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair2 in 2010, 2011 and 2012, as well as first place and a $100,000 prize at the Intel STS in 2013. 

Volz used that prize to pursue her education at MIT, where the 18 year old is currently majoring in biology and chemistry. In addition to juggling coursework and labs on topics such as genomic editing, Volz has become a vocal STEM education advocate. She has participated in TEDx Talks in California and Colorado, CES in Las Vegas, and the Youth Advisory Board for the USA Science and Engineering Festival, and has become a Nifty Fifty speaker in Washington, D.C., schools. 

While it wasn’t practical for Volz to bring her algae cultures to MIT, she says they are being maintained in her Colorado lab. Additionally, since Intel STS, Volz has participated in professional phycology conferences and met with Pentagon officials regarding their work on algae biofuel. 

Volz is now in the process of editing her research manuscript, with plans to publish. Having demonstrated proof of concept, her work may lead to further testing and, ultimately, to reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.

One day, Volz hopes to become a university professor.

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