Some of the greatest things happen in unexpected places. That certainly is the case for Sara Volz who, in search of alternative fuel sources, created a state-of-the-art algae lab under her bed. At just 18 years old, Sara is on track to change the world. Just Google her name, you’ll see she’s attracted attention for her biofuel research from the likes of CBS News, NBC News, Huffington Post, Popular Mechanics—the list goes on.
We’re thrilled that she will be among the presenters at TEDxMileHigh on November 16th. Despite her demanding schedule, we were able to catch up with Sara this week to get a sense of what makes her tick.
You just started college at MIT this fall. How’s it been and what has surprised you the most (so far) about your college experience?
I am really loving MIT. For one thing, there are the classes with world-class professors—and for another, there are all the amazing, motivated people I’m meeting. What’s surprised me the most is how little time there seems to be in the day—there is interesting stuff happening all the time!
Why algae? When did you first learn about it and how did you apply it to alternative energy?
I first found out about algae as an option as a fuel source in 8th grade. I had been making my own biodiesel from vegetable oils at home and was looking for other oil sources—the most commonly used sources (corn and soybean) are needed as food crops. Then I found through research that algae has such potential for high oil yields while also using non-arable land (not competing with food crops) and is carbon neutral.
Would you say that algae is misunderstood or doesn’t get the credit it deserves?
Algae has a lot of potential—I think sometimes people are too quick to dismiss it. It sounds like an outlandish idea at first, but once you dig deeper you realize that the whole concept is pretty compelling.
Are the possibilities with algae limitless? How do you see it being used, say ten to twenty years from now?
With more research on a variety of issues, algae has potential as an environmentally friendly, sustainable fuel source. It has already been used in commercial and government aircraft. Corporations, the Department of Energy, the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy have been interested in its potential.
If you could secure funding to conduct research of any kind, what would it be?
I’d love to do more experimentation investigating artificial selection as a tool for developing populations of organisms with useful attributes—this type of biochemistry has always been very interesting to me.
What do you see yourself doing once you graduate from MIT?
I am planning on an academic career right now—so basically never leaving school! I’d like to go on to do research and become a professor in biochemistry.
What advice would you offer young girls who have an interest in science?
It’s really important for today’s youth to ask questions about the world around us and apply themselves to solving critical problems such as our energy future. I think students no matter what gender, age, socioeconomic situation or educational opportunities should be encouraged to ask and answer questions. I didn’t have research classes or an established science fair program, and I hope that helps other kids realize they can do this sort of work too, if they want to. It can start small—just reading about what interests you, thinking about something you could do or design to answer a question. Definitely, ask lots of questions, and don’t be afraid to contact scientists for help and advice!
Is there anything that intimidates you?
It’s pretty intimidating to think of the future—so much to learn and do. But it’s also so exhilarating.
You’ve had many family outdoor adventures—what haven’t you had the opportunity to do that you are dying to try?
I’d really like to go skydiving!