BioGENEius Challenge celebrates young stars

05/13/2014 6:01 PM

05/13/2014 6:01 PM

The students who advanced to the finals of the Kansas BioGENEius Challenge, a science competition held last week at Union Station, took on some heavy topics: the cause of Alzheimer’s disease, how to clean up oil spills, the importance of sleep for longevity.

But the winner was Olathe North High School sophomore Triton Wolfe, whose experiment focused on finding the best method for turning algae into bio-diesel fuel.

Wolfe will advance to the international challenge, to be held June 22-25 in San Diego. The winner of that competition, sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based Biotechnology Institute, will receive a $7,500 cash award. In 2011, Kansas winner Prarthana Dalal took the top prize in the international competition.

“We should celebrate these kids like we do the all-star quarterbacks,” said Amy Jordan Wooden, a publicist for BioKansas, the sponsoring organization.

Wolfe and five other finalists were chosen for the Kansas competition based on the experiments they conducted as part of science and engineering fairs held in Wichita and Greater Kansas City this past school year.

The annual competition is sponsored by BioKansas, an industry organization representing entities from public, private and academic sectors. Founded in 2004, BioKansas works to enhance the state’s business and research climate, seeking to attract and retain bioscience talent, companies and funding. It’s often confused with — but is separate from — the publicly funded Kansas Bioscience Authority.

Board Chairman Wayne Carter, president and CEO of the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute, repeatedly expressed the hope that the contestants would return to the area for work after they completed their education.

Wolfe and his peers were chosen to go to Union Station for the finals by two BioKansas consultants, who attended the science fairs in Wichita and Kansas City, looking for the best contestants. Each student brought along his or her display from the fair and presented his/her results to a panel of industry experts who make up the BioKansas board of directors. Each finalist won a cash prize of $200.

Disha Dasgupta, a sophomore at Olathe North, presented her experiment, which microscopically examined neurons in the brains of worms, hoping to find clues to the cause of Alzheimer’s disease.

Andrea Dahl, a freshman at Olathe North, discussed the sleep cycles of fruit flies and their effects on longevity.

Courtney Widener, a senior at Liberal High School in western Kansas, presented her research on different methods for cleaning up crude-oil spills.

And Elizabeth Pierson, a senior at Sabetha High School discussed her experiment, “Aquaponic Lettuce vs. Traditional Lettuce.”

A sixth student chosen for the finals had a family emergency and couldn’t make his presentation, leaving Wolfe as the only boy in the competition.

His experiment was titled, “A study on macromolecular content in algal species Chlorella kessleri due to differing Nitrogen to Phosphorous ratios in the growth media.”

Wolfe said he conceived his experiment during an internship last summer in the laboratory of Belinda Sturm, an assistant professor in environmental engineering at the University of Kansas.

“I was interested in hydrothermal liquefaction, so I came up with this experiment,” Wolfe said. “HTL is the process by which you can convert bio matter into bio crude (oil). It mimics how the earth made crude oil — high heat and high pressure.

“Currently, making bio fuel is very expensive. HTL is a more efficient way to create it. Using today’s technology, we could fill the Great Lakes with algal water, and it wouldn’t supply 10 percent of the U.S. energy needs.”

Using HTL could greatly increase the efficiency of converting algae into biofuel, Wolfe said, and his experiment proved.

“Algae takes energy from the sun,” Wolfe said. “This is a short way of turning it into fuel. You don’t have to wait thousands of years for dinosaurs to decompose” and turn into crude oil.

As the Kansas winner, Wolfe will get a free trip to San Diego for the international competition and coaching from BioKansas partners to help him prepare.

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