Whiz kids

These Canadian teenagers are way ahead of their time.

Quick. Think back to your high-school science fair. Do images of mouldy cheese and papier mâché volcanoes fill your head? That was so old-school. Welcome to the new millennium–where the newest crop of young scientists are discovering revolutionary new ways to diagnose and cure diseases, develop renewable energy sources and use DNA to fight resistant bacteria. Meet the three Canadian First Place Grand Award winners of the 2005 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair–and prepare to be amazed.

Chet Gervais knew he was on to something when a science-fair judge asked him if he was interested in finding an investor for his modified digital mammography system–the Matrix Probe fusion device. The 17-year-old Amherstburg, Ont., student–who works part-time at his father's radiology clinic–developed a prototype ultrasound probe for a digital compression paddle that charges thousands of tiny crystals. This allows doctors to see up to “100 times more information” than traditional breast-screening methods, when combined with digital mammography images. “Because it's three-dimensional images, you can view it at any angle you like–and that helps for further localization of the tumours,” says the spiky-haired teen. Gervais guesses the device would cost about $100,000 to manufacture, and his preliminary calculations suggest a much faster payback period than a traditional ultrasound machine. Spoken like a true entrepreneur.

Kartik Madiraju says an article about magnetic bacteria that are able to direct drugs to tumour sites inspired him to harness the electrical energy from the naturally occurring bacteria–found at the bottom of fresh- and salt-water lakes throughout the world–to generate a source of renewable electricity. The 15-year-old Brossard, Que., student built a tiny bacteria-spinning generator that, if scaled up, could create about 10 times as much energy as a commercial D-size alkaline battery. There's a catch, though. Because the bacteria eventually run out of nutrients to feed on, the energy generated is only sustainable for about three hours. No problem, says Madiraju: “If we embed electrodes or build a type of reactor over the water bed to capture these bacteria…we could build something of an underwater power plant,” he says. Cool.

Adrian Veres was just eight years old when he first started fooling around with basic chemistry at his father's laboratory. Seven years later, the 15-year-old Montreal student has graduated to something more complex: DNA. Using synthetic strands of the genetic material, Veres developed a “DNA computer” that quickly and cost-effectively helps identify antibiotic resistance in human cells. “The application is to allow a new diagnostic tool for hospitals or smaller laboratories that would allow detection of several types of diseases,” he says. Veres has already secured a temporary patent for his innovation and hopes to spend the next year fine-tuning his project. “Some kids are into hockey, and others into soccer–I just happen to like DNA.”