History - Success stories - Sevilla 1992

Martin Spiller - Frithjof Küpper - Hendrik Küpper (D)

First Prize in Seville 1992. Their project was titled "Environmental Relevance of Heavy Metal Substituted Chlorophylls". Their interest in plant pigments dates back to autumn 1986, when they started to investigate the autumnal colouring of leaves. The three of them had remained friends and classmates for years, so they decided in 1988 to submit their findings to Schüler Experimentieren, a German competition for young scientists.

Frithjof explains that: "then we were sent to the second round, the Jugend Forscht, which would take place in Leverkuse, although we were not able to fully participate because we were too young".

They confess they owe a lot to their physics teacher's encouragement, Mr. Brennemann. In spite of that, the scientific equipment available at school was unsuitable for experimental work, and "apart from a few chemicals we found there, we had to choose other options. Early in 1987 we started establishing a laboratory in the basement of our house. In order to obtain technical equipment and chemicals, we repeatedly asked a local company and sent request letters to manufacturers or suppliers of laboratory products. We wanted donations, borrowing deals or reduced prices. In many cases, their support was instantaneous and generous. That is why we recommend to university researchers to try to obtain used materials from the research departments in industry. Such technical stuff is often thrown away despite the fact that it may still be quite functional".

Their specific interest in chlorophylls and their derivatives dates back to 1988, when Frithjof spent autumn at De la Salle College in Dublin. Michael Doyle, one of his Irish friends, drew his attention to what would become the topic of their project in Seville 1992: "in heavy metal chlorophylls, the central atom of natural chlorophyll (magnesium) has been replaced by certain elements like copper or zinc. Copper chlorophyll derivatives are of widespread use as dyes for cosmetics and foodstuffs. After a few experiments on such isolated pigments, we soon asked ourselves to what extent they might also be formed naturally in living plants".
The three daredevil researchers discovered that the exchange of magnesium for certain toxic heavy metals (copper, mercury, cadmium, nickel, zinc, etc.) in vivo seemed to have a major damaging effect on stressed plants. Frithjof explains that the substitution "prevents light harvesting in the affected chlorophyll molecules, finally resulting in a photosynthesis breakdown. We demonstrated that damage symptoms depend on light intensity. Low light means that a large part of the total chlorophyll is accessible to heavy metal substitution. Intense light prevented heavy metal chlorophylls from properly forming. However, unknown reactions prevail in this case".

Frithjof, Martin and Hendrik obtained another award by means of this project at the Young Europeans' Environmental Research Competition (November 1992). They believe that the EU Contest opened up the gateway to Europe concerning their careers. Correspondingly, they developed a "strong interest in European languages". Apart from German, Hendrik speaks English and has a basic knowledge of Czech, French and Russian; Frithjof is fluent in English, modern Greek and French; and Martin speaks English and French.
Judges in both that one and the European Contest recommended publishing their findings and, eventually, this was made possible on the Journal of Experimental Botany.

At the moment, both Frithjof and Hendrik are studying biology at the University of Konstanz; Martin is doing physics at the RWTH (the Institute of Technology of the State of Nordrhein-Westfalen) of Aachen (Germany). But how did they get there? In 1993 they visited young scientists in Greece and Cyprus. They produced a program for the Greek TV channel Antenna 1 in Athens, and gave a lecture for students of a grammar school in Paphos (Cyprus). Hendrik, in particular, gave another lecture at the last joint Czechoslovak Young Scientists Competition in Jihlava (June 1993). The following winter, they gave another talk at the European Young Scientists' Conference called "Science and Technology, the Lever of the New European Development" in Porto.

In this way, visits to other European countries became longer and longer sojourns. A contact from Greek young scientists and their supervisors enabled Frithjof to work at the National Centre for Marine Research in Athens (1994). Later on he got the opportunity to work on the biochemistry of seaweed at Station Biologique de Roscoff, which is one of the oldest marine laboratories in Europe. He has therefore studied, amongst other things, the metabolism of iodine and oxygen-activated species as well as the defence reactions of marine brown algae. This project first became his diploma thesis and then developed into his PhD. And he is still connected to the DG Research of the European Commission since a Marie Curie Research Training Grant (MAST III Programme) is financing his PhD.

Concerning Martin, he did his diploma thesis at the RWTH of Aachen, and currently works on his PhD thanks to the co-operation between that institution and the Institut Mécanique des Fluides (Toulouse). His interest currently focuses on numerical and experimental studies of reactive transport processes, particularly in large-scale groundwater aquifers.

Last but not least, Hendrik received an invitation to the Czechoslovak competition in Jihlava, which provided him with the opportunity to work at the Institute for Autotrophic Micro-organisms of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Trebon. He spent three months there, in total, between the years 1996 and 1997.

Hendrik finally completed his diploma project in a joint programme between the University of Konstanz and the Czech Academy of Sciences in Trebon. He now does his PhD thesis by means of a co-operative scheme between those two centres and the IACR of Rothamsted (Institute of Arable Crops Research), in England. And his thesis is actually a sort of development of their project at Seville 1992. It deals with a comparison of heavy metal hyper accumulator and non-accumulator plants.

They consider their chances of remaining in the fields of active research either at universities or scientific institutions very optimistically. The EU Contest, they confess, has definitely been "an important contribution to this".

Luis Bellot Rubio (E)

Second Prize winner alongside with Antonio Román Reche and Gustavo Román Reche. Their project was titled "Analysis of visual observations of the comet Levy".

He is now part of the Research Staff of the Instituto Astrofísico de Canarias.

Pauli Salo (FIN)

Pauli participated in the EU Contest of Sevilla 1992 with a project titled: "The fourth world". This project was specially peculiar: his programme combined mathematics, phsyics, psychology, history and religion in order to simulate the behaviour of populations from the standpoint of mass psychology. In brief, the programme designed by Salo could calculate the evolution of a chosen population year by year and taking into account that population's standards of living, culture of political situation.

He reckons that his academic background in Seville was somewhat different from the others'. At the time of the EU Contest, he was profoundly involved in musical composition at the Sibelius Academy of Helsinki. However, his participation in the Contest allowed him "to meet other young people and scientists with similar interests, which made me concentrate my efforts on science rather than music: "that was a really good choice for me. And here I am now, quite devoted to science and having nothing else to do but research in cognitive science".

About his personal recollections of Seville 1992, he affirms that "despite the fact that I did not actually obtain an overwhelming success in there, which was understandable because my work was not really one of the best, I felt that my enthusiasm, devotion and originality was noticed and encouraged by the senior scientists around". He is very grateful concerning the way he was treated by the members of the Jury, and their "intense curiosity that they showed towards my project. I specially recall one old mathematics professor whose attitude was really supporting and warm. I had rather long discussions with him".

He confesses that "the EU contest changed the course of my life for better. It meant to me, as it did to anybody else involved in it, a brilliant experience that we will remember throughout our lives".

Pauli is quite assertive about the relevance of competitions: "I think that a science contest like the EU one, attracting young people to the realms of science to a degree that can hardly be matched by any other day-to-day circumstances, must absolutely be sustained and supported in the future. I just wish there could be more events like that". He insists that "potential scientists need a model and a lot of encouragement. That is something one cannot easily find in a high school or a University. At least in my case, I would have not experienced if it had not been for the EU Contest".

Currently working on his PhD in Cognitive Science at the University of Helsinki, he admits that his studies are basically interdisciplinary and multi-faceted. Besides his studies, he is also involved in lecturing.