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Amateur Student Scientists are Solving Big Problems, Like Anthrax

The answers to some of the biggest questions in science often turn out to be far simpler than researchers originally hypothesize. As a result, inexperienced but open-minded students frequently make meaningful scientific breakthroughs. Today, young student scientists are encouraged to think big and pursue their own projects.

Historic Student Scientists

Louis Braille
created his famous 
raised dots system of reading and writing, now used by the visually-impaired around the world, when he was 15 years old.

Anton van Leeuwenhoek
began making great improvements to the microscope when he was only 16.

Cyrus McCormick
began inventing when he was only 15, and created his famous reaper
when he was 22.

Blaise Pascal
famous for his contributions to mathematics, invented a 
mechanical adding machine was he was 19.

George Westinghouse
was awarded his first patent for the steam engine when he was 19.

Important Student Researchers Today


In 2006, high school student Marc Roberge experimented with a common clothing iron on sealed envelopes and proved his hypothesis that the hot steam would kill anthrax-like bacteria. Needing to complete a project for his AP biology course, Roberge remembered the theory of a former Soviet Union scientist who suggested that hot steam would kill anthrax. Roberge used a harmless surrogate bacteria routinely used by anthrax researchers to conduct his research. Marc found that the steam from an iron set to its highest setting (about 400° F) could actually kill the anthrax-like bacteria. His discovery was so important, it was published in the Journal of Medical Toxicology.

Composite Structures

Brigham Young University undergraduate Mark Jensen recently developed a new method for making composite lattice pole structures. Called IsoTruss, Jensen’s machine weaves lightweight composite fibers into a strong braid that may one day replace steel beams in construction. Jensen and his partner turned his invention into a business, Altus Poles LLC.

Drug Testing

In 2010, a graduate student from Harvard and MIT engineered human liver cells into mice to make testing new drugs easier. Bridging the gap between animal studies and clinical trials, Alice Chen’s invention protects human subjects by eliminating under-reporting of the toxicity of a drug to humans. Today, Chen is using her humanized mice to study the effects of malaria and Hepatitis C on humans.

Electronics Printing

Graduate student Brett Walker of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has created a less expensive and simpler ink for printing electronics. Walker’s reactive silver ink has no particles, but rather is a silver acetate and ammonia solution. The silver remains a liquid in the solution until the remaining liquids evaporate, leaving the conductive silver behind. The ink takes minutes to make, remains stable for weeks, and allows for easier pattern printing through very fine nozzles.

Predicting Flight Turbulence

Ohio University computer science graduate students Chad Mourning and Scott Nykl developed a new altimeter that predicts flight turbulence and helps pilots avoid the wake vortices created when planes takeoff and land. Entrepreneurial as well as techie, these young scientists have started their own business to launch this potentially life-saving technology.

Surgical Innovations

Undergraduate students at Johns Hopkins University invented the Quick-Stitch, a more efficient and safe, disposable tool for suturing in gastrointestinal surgery. Leslie Myint, Daniel Peng, Stephen Van Kooten, Sohail Zahid, Andyg Tu, Haley Huang, Anvesh Annadanam and Luis Herrera won the 2012 Collegiate Inventors Competition Undergraduate First Prize with their pliers-like device that regulates the tension of stitches to avoid ischemia and hernias that can occur after such surgeries.

Wiffle-Ball Drug Delivery

Immune systems often interfere with life-saving drug therapies, such as in cancer treatment. University of California, San Diego graduate student Inanc Ortac developed a method of hiding the drug from the body’s immune system. Based on a wiffle ball design, the structure is one millionth the size of an actual wiffle ball and protects the drug inside a cage-like structure until it reaches the tumor. Ortac won the Graduate First Prize of the 2012 Collegiate Inventors Competition for his unique solution to a thorny problem.

Sadly, despite the diverse research opportunities open to science-minded students, enrollment in technical and scientific in many U.S. college degree programs is declining. Students interested in making a contribution and innovating can explore opportunities available through these resources:

Mentornet connects mentors with students, postdocs and protégés in the hard sciences and engineering. Its mission is to diversity the global workforce in technical, science and engineering fields.

Scientific American has featured a number of articles that discuss the latest developments and career trends in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields.

SMART Scholarship is a program that provides full tuition, stipends, paid summer internships, mentoring and employment placement as part of the National Defense Education Program.

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