History - Success stories - Zurich 1991

Sarah Teichmann (EU)

Her project was titled "The effects of climatic and astronomical conditions on the metabolism of a deciduous leaf in autumn".
She reached the EU Contest after winning the science competition of the European Schools that very year.
She had been working on it for the last three years of her schooling. It consisted of a biochemical investigation into the processes that take place when leaves become old. She assures that "I was not a miniature mad scientist who set up a chemistry laboratory in my family's kitchen. Instead, the project I began to work on was inspired to a great extent by the suggestions and practical help of my chemistry teacher at the time, who kindly made the school laboratory and chemical equipment available to me. Although the tests that I carried out on the leaves were chemistry of a basic sort, the questions we were asking made me start thinking about leaves and indeed about all living organisms in a different way.
From the EU Contest in 1991 she remembers how she enjoyed meeting other teenagers with an earnest interest in science: "By talking to other participants and learning about their projects, I also started picking up a few of the vital ingredients of good science, such as formulating a clear hypothesis, studying one or a few variables at a time, and so forth".

She believes that it is not the competitive aspect of these so-called science "contests" that is important, but that there are many other valuable lessons to be gained from such an experience for a young person.

"In short, she says, "the EU Contest for Young Scientists has helped recruit and encourage at least one scientist, not so young anymore, to embark on the great adventure that is molecular biology in the era of the complete human genome". The month after her participation at the EU Young Scientists contest, she sent off her application to study Biochemistry at Cambridge University. Specialising in computational molecular biology for her PhD, in particular the study of protein evolution by analysing genomes, she won the Max Perutz Prize of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. Then she was awarded a Beit Fellowship to do research at University College London for the next few years and a Trinity Research Fellowship to do research back at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology after that.

The research that won her all these awards was based on the study of protein and genome evolution by analysing completely sequenced genomes. She explains that "this is something that has only become possible in the past few years with the completion of the first genome projects. Most of the completed genome projects are bacteria, as well as yeast and worm. My PhD work was concerned with analysing the sequence data from these projects in terms of the structural protein families in the different genomes. Since all organisms are built from a limited repertoire of protein families, genomes evolve to a large extent by simply duplicating and modifying the same set of genes. Investigating these duplications and the evolution of individual protein families was the main focus of my thesis."*

Christiaan Kok (NL)

Second Prize for his work on "Oscilating systems of chemical reactions", alongside with Henk Hoekstra.

He works as a PhD student at the University of Groningen in the Department of Polymer Chemistry. His PhD research relates to the structure formation in complex polymer systems.

Henk Hoekstra (NL)

Alongside with Christiaan Kok, Henk won a Second Prize at Zurich 1991 for a project on "Oscilating Systems of Chemical Reactions".

He describes the social events during that Contest as "my first big meeting with scientists from many countries". He assures that it did not feel like competing for a prize; the same is also true for his current life as a scientist: "although various groups compete, there is always this common interest to increase our understanding of nature by helping each other. In that respect the EU Contest id a good image of the interactions between senior scientists". Because of the EU Contest he got involved in the organisation of the Dutch National Contest, and this has been "very instructive" to him.

He is now doing a PhD in Astronomy at the Kapteyn Institute of the University of Groningen (the Netherlands): "I will have to defend my thesis in June. Currently I am already applying for Post Doctoral positions in Canada and the United States. I really expect to hold a good position after next summer; I think the prospects are good". Henk's thesis deals with massive structures in the universe, which he studies by means of this procedure: "thanks to the bending of the rays of light produced by mass all along the line of sight, we are able to obtain a direct measurement of the projected mass. As most matter in the universe is invisible, the so-called dark matter, this system provides a powerful way of seeing how it is distributed. It is a very new field, and the breakthrough came up only less than a decade ago". He finds it very challenging "because the signals are extremely vague, and many posterior corrections must be implemented. The subject is also enthralling because it includes both theoretical and observational work. We have obtained many data from the Hubble Space Telescope as well as from many ground-based telescopes. Furthermore, astronomy is a very international science, and as a result I have been travelling a lot". He has been three times, for instance, to the European Northern Observatory in the Canary Islands, in order to carry out the necessary observations for his thesis.

Olivier van der Aa (B)

Second Prize for his project on "The Flight study of a micro-rocket", alongside with Nicolas Bouche.

Olivier recalls how interesting it was to meet other young people interested in science. He believes his success at the EU Contest in Zurich encouraged him very much in order to continue his scientific drive, particularly for physics. He admits that "I realised it was possible to understand more deeply how things work when using a scientific method. We were enjoying ourselves with rockets but it was not enough, somewhat we wanted to understand more, and the only way to understand more is tu use physics".
Concerning their project, he points out that they were not only keen on the equations describing the flight of a rocket, but also on measuring parameters that could be used to determine the characteristics of that flight.

Olivier is now doing his PhD thesis in the field of high-energy particles at the Université Catholique de Louvain (Belgium). There is a new colliding system at CERN (European Laboratory for Particle Physics) which will improve the way proton's collision is measured: "this will make it possible to study new phenomena predicted by models that are beyond the standard model". He explains that "there will be two detectors set up to study the result of those collisions between protons. One is called CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) and it is in the CMS development that I am working at. There is a huge challenge to be met concerning these experiments. We try to identify the new face of physics at the point where a great number of particles are produced, right after collisions. The core of my work consists of developing algorithms that allow us to recognise events that are interesting from the point of view of physics. This new way of studying physics will surely help us to understand better what matter is constituted of".

Nicolas Bouche (B)

Nicolas won a second prize in Zurich 1991. He and Olivier van der Aa represented Belgium with a project titled: "Flight Study of a Micro-Rocket".

The EU Contests was a great experience for him: "it was probably the first time I had to talk in English with colleagues. The presentation of the project was in English as well. At that time it was a real challenge, but Olivier and I managed to make us understandable. It certainly boosted my English skills and my confidence, and that is important in order to live in the United States". He is very thankful to Olivier and his advisors at College Cardinal Mercier de Braine-l'Alleud, Mr. Palamin and Mr. Vanlaerebeek.
He particularly recalls the relaxed atmosphere reigning over the whole organisation and development of the Zurich Contest. He was specially shocked by "the amazing visit to the top of the Junfraujoch peak". He thinks that "the EU Contest certainly reassured me to stay in the natural sciences and probably helped me to be accepted by this institution. Before that, I had graduated in physics at the Université de Louvain-La-Neuve in 1997".

He is now pursuing the career he really wanted to do at the time of the Zurich edition of the EU Contest: astronomy. More precisely, he is doing a doctoral programme at the University of Massachusetts, a research that is particularly two-folded. Firstly, he is involved in a project that investigates the large scale of the universe. This involves studying several galaxies and their clustering. From that observation one can infer the density of the universe, which will tell us whether the universe will expand forever or collapse back. This part of his research entails utilising the 2MASS (two-Micron All Sky Survey) developed by the University of Massachusetts; this allows Nicolas to obtain infrared apparent luminosity from thousands of galaxies. When combining this picture with radio data, the so-called Tully-Fisher linear relationship is built up, which means that it is possible to know the distance to every single galaxy by comparing apparent and absolute luminosity.

Secondly, Nicolas observes a specific Quasar by means of the Hubble Space Telescope images: "we know from the spectra that there is something between that Quasar and us, but no one has found it yet, neither have we. These observations are really on the edge of the Hubble Telescope's capabilities". One of these two projects will become the topic of his thesis, but he has not decided yet.