Last week I had the honour of being asked to judge the Senior Chemistry section of the National Science and Engineering Competition at the Big Bang Fair in London. These 16-18 year old students (mostly towards the latter) were each presenting projects which, almost without exception, could easily have passed for first-class masters-level research and I’m not too proud to say that a lot of them (especially the biochemists I talked to) lost me on more than one occasion!
The awesome Sophie Franklin (who was judging the junior prize) and me on the main strip.They’re clearly at the top of their game, many of them producing work that’s not only impressive in its own right but will open up new avenues of research. I was astounded at what they had managed to produce in between 4 and 9 weeks, some of them with little to no supervision.Here are some of the highlights…

I saw an excellent presentation from an enthusiastic chap from Northampton School for Boys who had been working for the NHS, analysing how individual allergen proteins (or “epitopes“) from peanuts could bind to allergy sufferers’ antibodies. Apparently at the moment if you have an allergy you might get a skin-prick test which would include a “peanut mix”, you might get your blood analysed for the way it binds different allergen mixtures including a type of “peanut mix” or you might even be effectively asked to eat another nut (known as a food challenge) whilst doctors stand by with adrenaline and resuscitation equipment! This project looked at a way of analysing the way that different proteins from the peanut bind with your antibodies and could give a much more accurate diagnosis. These behave differently and it’s likely you’re not allergic to all of them. One protein tends to induce more dangerous immune responses than others; some are destroyed by cooking whilst others aren’t so it might be feasible to say to someone that they can eat roasted peanuts but not raw ones. This sounds like a massively useful and exciting area to be working in. Watch this space!A girl from Haberdashers Aske’s had been at GSK looking at the use of ketonic solvents in Suzuki-Miyaura couplings. The amount of data she’d been able to produce was staggering and the benefits of the solvent systems she’d been involved in developing were marked.There was a girl who’d been developing new nano-material carbon-fibre membranes for use in fuel cells. She’s now working for the company where she did her project before she starts her degree.There was Nathan Katz from Hills Road sixth form college who had been trying to extract and crystallise the protein PERK from pancreatic cells to help us better understand the ways in which they react to stress that we might better treat diabetes. The amount of work to get a cell to make a protein for you and then to get it out of there totally blew me away. He was so excited about what he’d been doing I had to tell him to chill out because he was speaking so fast he was literally going blue in the face! He never quite managed to get that pesky PERK out but by a little bit of good old-fashioned silly mistake and some serendipity (am I the only one who pines for the old days when we seemed to discover a lot more by getting things wrong?!) – he discovered an entire new level of oligomeric structure for PERK that no-one even knew existed. Sweet! Nathan went on to collect a “Highly Commended” in the overall Young Scientist prize so did very well!

The judging process was pretty easy for most of the projects. Although I’d only been asked for a ranked “top 3”, I had quickly been able to place all the projects in order … with the exception of the top two!

The best of the best

The first girl I met was Hannah Eastwood from Loreto College. Her project was looking at a way of producing Lepidocrocite for use in removing heavy metals from water. This was proper science fair stuff! There was no Nuffield bursary, no university or big pharma backing, she wasn’t looking for UCAS statement glory (she went on to do Vet Sci!) – she’d just been intrigued by a story she heard on the radio about the use of this particular iron oxide-hydroxide mineral. She thought she’d have a go at making some and a great story ensued involving a lot of problems and proper garden-shed engineering solutions to overcome them. Of course in the end, she got what she was after but in true science fair style, took her results to the boffins at the University of Ulster who were utterly mystified. She’d had the foresight to hook up her home-made self-delivering hydroxide mechanism to a data logger and ended up with a voltage / OH- diagram that revealed the existence of never-before-seen intermediates in the formation of the mineral. Great craic! Hopefully in the future, we can rescue Lepidocrocite from the clutches of the crystal healing brigade because when you start typing it, that seems to be where Google wants to take you!

Hannah had been topping the board for me through the whole day until I met Saranja Sivachelvam from Bancroft’s school – potentially the most driven chemist I have ever met. I totally lost track of all of the work placements and projects she’d manage to line up for herself but the one she was presenting was the result of the time she spent at Cambridge looking at ways to control the formation of different polymorphs through the use of cocrystals. It was clear from the off that her project had massive potential and would have real impact on the area. She speed she’d picked up new skills and the intimidating volume of data she’d been able to produce was overwhelming.

I was totally torn between the two girls. In the end, I went with Saranja who had had a lot longer but had produced a staggeringly vast body of incredibly valuable work. I was glued to twitter on Friday night hoping to hear that Saranja had won a lot of other prizes so they’d given the Chemistry prize to Hannah, my second choice so they could both win. As it turned out, I did get to have my cake and eat it. Hannah had been awarded the overall Young Scientist of the Year prize! I was so happy!

Hannah winning the Young Scientist of the Year Prize: Image courtesy NSEC

A great number of the best students I saw had been awarded Nuffield Bursaries. I was unaware of their existence until earlier his year but having seen the impact that they have had on not only these students and their supervisors, but on the scientific community as a whole, I hope they continue for a long time and they’re something I’ll be promoting heavily.

Judging this competition was an utterly humbling experience and I’m grateful to Bristol ChemLabs for thinking of me when they needed a lackey to fill in for them!