by David Schwartz

Sara Volz in her home algae lab

Sara Volz in her home algae lab

Sara, we’ve got to hand it to you. A lot of students make it all the way through college without much of an idea about what they plan to do afterwards. You, on the other hand, seem to have had a pretty clear idea from an early age.

The Colorado Springs native got into alternative energy in the seventh grade when she heard some neighbors were making their own biodiesel in their basement, she says. “I thought that was a really cool idea, that they were able to take this waste vegetable oil that people weren’t using and convert it to a fuel you could put in a diesel engine. So in seventh and eighth grade I actually did some work relating to regular biodiesel, but it was non algae-based.”

As a high school senior, Sarah went viral with algae a few months back when she bested 1,712 high school seniors competing in the Intel Science Talent Search. Her research on using artificial selection to establish populations of algae cells with high oil content to help make algae biofuel economically feasible captured the grand prize. She was awarded $100,000 and a White House visit. It also brought her major cred from the Intel Corporation as well as the Society for Science & the Public (SSP) in what is considered one of the nation’s most elite and demanding high school research competitions.

So how did Ms. Volz catch the algae bug, and where is she going with it? We had a delightful conversation with her recently to find out more about her early influences and, now that she is entrenched at MIT, what she sees as her path forward.

What was it that first appealed to you about algae?

I really sort of figured out through research and some of my exploration in science that what I was really interested in was biochemistry. It was really the cellular interactions that fascinated me the most. And so when I heard about algae biofuels, just before ninth grade, I became focused on algae because it was a combination of two of my passions, alternative energy and biochemistry.

I spent a lot of that time before ninth grade trying to figure out algae and doing a lot of reading. I contacted several scientists and experts and had some phone conversations, and my work in algae has gradually deepened over the years.

What became your quest?

I think the quest was to figure out what I could do with the lipid metabolism to try and improve oil yields.

Sara with algae setup under her bed

Sara with algae setup under her bed

Who was most responsible for getting you up and running as a researcher?

When I was first getting started I was emailing a lot of people, just trying to get some guidance, some information. When you’re that young and trying to find someone to help you with a project like this, you find a lot of closed doors. But I also found some open ones. So, there are a couple of researchers at Colorado State University who were really awesome about letting me bounce my ideas off of them, encouraging me, teaching me techniques. I also owe a lot to my parents for putting up with me having a lab in my bedroom – and also for encouraging me to make those contacts.

That algae lab in your bedroom – how would you describe it?

I was redoing my room a couple of years ago, and got a loft bed where underneath I put rows of shelves where I had flasks of algae bubbling, and lights, and a lot of equipment and chemicals that I’ve begged, borrowed and stolen over the years.

Some of the stuff I bought, some my parents bought me as presents – I’ve asked for flasks for my birthday. Most of my glassware I borrowed from professors. I’ve got a centrifuge, a microscope, and various supplies for making media and doing chemistry. It’s a pretty nice setup.

What did your experiments consist of?

Most of the experiments are at this point just growth experiments – growing the cultures under different conditions. All of my analytical work that involves lipids or that involves enzymatic stuff, I have to do outside my home because I don’t have that kind of equipment.

Can you share any of your lab successes?
Nannochloropsis salina cultures, 2 mM sethoxydim-selected for four weeks and cultured in untreated f/2 medium for four more weeks, showed ~200% lipid overproduction compared to native cell lines.

You won the Intel Science fair this past year. What was it, do you think, that made your presentation the one they chose?

I’m still not sure! That was such a shock, and such an honor. But I think one of the things that they liked about my research was that it was an idea I came up with that was not necessarily something that was very technical, or very complicated, but it was something that was just a new perspective. And it was something that I developed myself – that came from my observations.

Now that you are starting at MIT, what is your goal?

At this point I think I’m going to major in Biochemistry, but I don’t know what that’s going to look like yet. My biggest goal in going to school next year is to get a lot more research experience because that is the thing I love most about science. Research is a way to experience and to challenge the unknown. That’s one of the reasons I chose MIT, because their undergraduate research opportunities are just amazing. I’m hoping to make a lot of friends, discover a lot of new things. I’m very excited.

Describe the course of study you expect to have over the next couple of years?

Lots of biology and chemistry. I might want to minor in physics or math. I’m also hoping to take some different classes, too. I’m very interested in musical theater, so I’ll probably spend some time on that. Maybe join an a cappella group.

What is your vision of what you will be doing ten years from now?

I’m planning to go to graduate school and get a PhD. At this point I’m planning on spending the rest of my life in school. I want to go into a career in academia and basically do research. I’ve always felt more connected to the academic side than the business side, or the enactment of the idea side. But I’m interested in developing the types of solutions in the lab that can be applied to the real world.

Anything you’d like to pass along to the readers?

I guess it’s that we can’t underestimate the power of these organisms to hold solutions for all manner of real world problems. That’s one of the things that has amazed me the most about working with algae, that there are so many ways to treat these biological systems and so many different results that you can get from them.