Inspiring, determined, persistent, ahead of her peers – all terms used by Colorado State University faculty and staff to describe Cheyenne Mountain High School teen Sara Volz, a 16-year-old student who was just named a 2011 high school inventor by Popular Science magazine in its September issue.
Volz, who has been conducting research on alternative fuels for the past year and built her own photobioreactor, has been working alongside college professors and students within the College of Agricultural Sciences and CSU’s Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory, which was recently recognized by Popular Science as one of the nation’s top 25 academic laboratories.
Volz’s research was recently recognized as one of the top awards in the Energy and Transportation category at the International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles, Calif., an honor that comes with a $3,000 prize. Her research focuses on finding and determining the expression level of a particular gene in algae. Volz found that if she starved algae for nitrogen, the algae would stop growing and make more lipids. Volz would extract and use RNA from algae to look at the level of transcription in the gene, helping her understand how to make more enzymes by turning the gene on and activating it.
“I’ve always been interested in alternative energy and microbiology. I have become ever more intrigued with algae biofuels because it melds the two fields. It’s also a fairly up-and-coming topic, so it’s a very exciting area to be working in,” Volz said.
Volz first visited the Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory and Solix BioSystems Inc. while investigating the idea of using algae for biofuel. Volz later contacted Bryan Willson, professor and director of the lab, in the fall of 2009 when she first began her research with algae biofuels. Then, in the summer and fall of 2010, Volz realized she wanted to work with molecular biology techniques, and Willson put her in contact with CSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
“We have 150 faculty members working broadly in energy and within dozens of departments. One of our goals for CSU’s Clean Energy Supercluster is to connect the outside world to CSU resources related to energy – and in this case, the program was able to link up Sara with Stephen Chisholm,” Willson said.
Stephen Chisholm, assistant professor of weed science, said Volz and her mother came out to visit CSU and, after discussing her abstract and her desire to isolate RNA from algae, it became clear that her involvement in the project stemmed from her passion, intelligence and initiative to learn more about molecular biology.
“Sara is really unique in that she just goes out and learns a lot about things she’s interested in,” Chisholm said. “She seems to be somewhere around 10 years ahead of her peers.”
In addition to her studies and research, Volz also participates in theatre and on the Speech and Debate team, among many other activities. Volz will be a junior at her high school this year and plans to continue her research within alternative fuels.
“I am really impressed with Sara. It’s very rare that you come across someone with her degree of talent. I would be thrilled to have a grad student come into CSU with her motivation and capability,” Chisholm said.
The Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory, part of the Colorado State University College of Engineering mechanical engineering department, is world renowned for developing sustainable solutions to some of the world’s largest environmental problems. Graduates and undergraduates work directly on projects that improve the efficiency of large engines, create and test renewable energy applications on the electric grid and bring cleaner burning products – such as efficient, cleaner two-stroke engines and cookstoves – to the developing world.