The Elks’ generosity is not only helping students pursue their educational goals, it may also help the world find a new sustainable energy source. 2013 Most Valuable Student scholar Sara Volz, is performing groundbreaking research with algae as a possible biofuel, which may contribute to Earth’s sustainability.
Sara, sponsored by Colorado Springs, Colo., Lodge No. 309, has been fascinated by the energy possibilities of algae since 8th grade. Through her research, she has found that algae has the potential for high oil yields, while not competing with food crops for land.
Big Ideas in Small Places
By high school, Sara was exploring how to convert algae into a feasible, affordable energy source. Her passion led her to create a lab in her home, first in her parent’s kitchen, then right under her bed.
“I set to work trying to tackle one of the issues – that of producing higher oil yields to make it financially practical,” says Sara.
In order to get the algae to produce higher oil yields, Sara had to get creative.
“I wanted to see if I could manipulate it genetically,” she explains. “Having no access to the right high-tech tools, I thought of trying to get the algae to make such a switch on its own.”
By varying the dosage of an herbicide on her algae cultures, Sara was able to force her cultures to build up a resistance to it, and thus, overproduce oil.
“I was surprised to see my idea working so dramatically,” explains Sara. “With continuing trials, the cell line I created continued to produce much higher oil yields.”
A Plant with Great Potential
Sara’s amazing work garnered considerable attention. She even won first place in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search, earning $100,000 to pursue her research and change the future of renewable energy.
“With more research, algae has potential as an environmentally friendly, sustainable fuel source,” says Sara. “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.”
Asking the Right Questions
With the help of her Most Valuable Student scholarship, Sara has taken her research to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She looks forward to a career in scientific research, and later in academia, helping other student’s put their curiosity to use to solve critical issues.
“It's really important for today’s youth to ask questions about the world around us and apply themselves to solving critical problems,” says Sara.
Sara is grateful for the Elks’ support and their investment in her education. “I greatly appreciate what I learned about the organization and the financial support that is helping me attend MIT!” says Sara.
Just like the algae oil she is researching, Sara’s energy and enthusiasm has great potential to help shape the world for the better.
Sara recently gave a TEDx talk in California about her research and what science means to her. Click here to watch the video.
In 2013-14, the Elks National Foundation allocated $2.44 million to fund 500 four-year Most Valuable Student Scholarships, which now feature 20 top awards of at least $20,000. For more information about the Most Valuable Student scholarship program, including eligibility and deadlines, visit www.elks.org/enf/scholars.