Young geniuses with an eye on the big picture

It’s both inspiring and intimidating to enter a room knowing that the people in it quite possibly hold the key to saving the world’s environment, providing clean power in generations to come, and curing diseases such as cancer. But what’s more remarkable is to find a room of geniuses with fully developed PR sensors.

At Stockholm’s National Museum of Science and Technology (Tekniska Museet), the EU Contest for Young Scientists is giving Europe’s young geniuses a chance to prove they’re already one step ahead of today’s academic elite. But a walk around the contest’s exhibition hall shows not only that there’s an apparently ready supply of precocious scientific talent, but that the new generation knows how to sell its science in a competitive world.

Take Michael Kaiser and Johannes Kienl, two 19-year olds from Austria – they have designed a system for de-icing aircraft while in flight, for which they have already attracted interest from a number of major airlines.

The charismatic young inventors fit in neatly with the green thinking that pervades the exhibition hall: the pair calculate that their system will use only 1 percent of a big jet’s engine power – current systems use up to 15 percent. It works by the expansion of a heated metal layer, which pushes ice off the wings.

“Our system is five tonnes lighter than the systems in use today,” explains Johannes to The Local.

“This also works for wind turbines – right now they have to be shut down when it freezes – this means they can be de-iced and keep running.”

It’s an idea that appeals both to the wallets of airlines and to the green agenda – so it shouldn’t be surprising that airlines in Austria, Germany and the US are looking keenly at Kaiser and Kienl’s ideas.

Thinking green

Another competitor who is thinking green is Lithuanian Justinas Teiserkas, and he is also keen to think in terms of practical solutions. He has studied the impact of the most popular household detergents on lakes and rivers. He developed a technique for measuring how quickly detergents break down in fresh water.

“If people could see what was happening, they would care more,” he says.

“People use too much detergent – they think that if they use lots of detergent it will make things cleaner, but it doesn’t. They should use a bit more thought.” Just changing the brand of your detergent can make a big difference, Teiserkas has shown.

Confusingly, while the EU-sponsored contest is only open to European youngsters, the accompanying exhibition has attracted young scientists from far beyond Europe’s frontiers. Seventeen-year old Di Jin comes from the Shanghai area of China, and has developed a solar-powered generator that could help millions of households in poor, rural areas.

The generator is based on an existing solar-powered machine that many Chinese homes already use to heat water. Di Jin’s system makes it possible to use the water heater as a household power station. She came up with the idea when she was just 15:

“I watched the news one day and saw that when electricity usage was high in some parts of China, factories were being shut down. I was learning about solar energy at school at the time, and thought that this could be used somehow,” she says.

Scientists are often accused in the media of being unable to articulate their case, but if this competition is anything to go by, today’s young scientists will turn that image on its head. You would be hard pressed to find a more switched-on, articulate and engaging group of people.

Spare-time cancer research

Take 20-year old Dane Mette Gade Hyldgaard. She’s starting an undergraduate course in Pharmacy next month, “but I hope I’ll be able to keep up her cancer research in my spare time,” she says. She’s currently looking into an anti-cancer drug based on a traditional Chinese medicine, and hopes to find the mechanism that makes it work.

What’s striking about so many of the exhibitors is that they combine scientific nous with an almost evangelical fervour. They not only want to discover, they want to tell the world how it needs to change. If today’s scientists are sometimes accused of steering clear of public debate, there seem to be no such qualms among the coming generation.

While working in a hospital in southern England, 19-year old Briton David Bendell looked into how harmful bacteria can spread through hospital wards. This is a big problem in the UK, where hospital-borne infections are rife. He expounds articulately on what he saw:

“I found, for instance, that staff were using sticky tape to attach rubbish bags to patients’ tables. But sticky tape contains sugars, making it an ideal place for bacteria to grow. I thought that there must be something that could be done.”

Indeed, lab tests showed that some pretty nasty bugs were sitting in the tape, including bacillus cereus, a well-known cause of food poisoning. David gave them the idea of replacing the tape with metal clips, which are practically sterile.

He also noticed that the way that food was being delivered on trolleys around the wards was threatening to spread hospital-borne infections from one part of the ward to another.

A simple move was to shift patients with virulent infections to the far end of the ward, so that trolleys weren’t passing them again and again. He proposed to the hospital that plastic gloves be placed by every bed to be used by catering staff when serving food.

He clearly had to deploy all his charm to persuade staff – all much older than him – of the need to change.

“Many staff were resistant at first, but there has been a gradual change in practices,” he says.

Anders Sahlman, the man behind bringing the competition to Sweden, says he hopes the example of the scientists exhibiting this week will encourage interest in other youngters:

“We want to inspire young people to take an interest in natural sciences, technology and research,” says Sahlman. On the evidence of this week’s contest, things are off to a pretty good start.