7th-graders sniff success in foul smell

April 21, 1994|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Sun Staff Writer

For the Clarksville Four, a leaky half-gallon jug of foul-smelling brown liquid was the beginning of an adventure.

Howard County seventh-graders Brooke Kimball, Jessica Weeks, Sarah Leonard and Melanie Scheick wanted to help save the earth from pollution. To get started, they needed the jug and its compost-heap-grown oil-eating microbes.

"We're trying to clean up oil spills faster and cheaper," said Melanie, 12, of Columbia. Their experiments are demonstrating that the microbes consume floating crude oil.

Their work intrigued the editors of the children's science magazine, National Geographic World, who picked the four Clarksville Middle School students as examples of children taking action on behalf of the environment.

The April edition, which focuses on the environment in recognition of Earth Day, features a photograph of the four girls in lab coats and surgical masks, standing over a plastic trash can identical to the one the four used to incubate their microscopic charges.

"Kids really can make a difference, and I think sometimes kids can make more of a difference than adults," said Jackie Geschickter, the magazine's coordinator for Kids Did It, a feature that recognizes achievements of children worldwide.

Although multinational oil companies are experimenting with their own genetically engineered bacteria to help clean up their messes, Columbia scientist Scot Hoeksema believes the organisms the Clarksville girls are working with could have an advantage.

"One thing is that they're working with a wild-type bacteria, and not one that's genetically engineered, so it might prove to be more acceptable," Mr. Hoeksema says. "I think there's a general reluctance on the part of the population to release any engineered organism on the environment."

Even if the experiment doesn't produce any breakthroughs, "it's exciting to see how everything is working out, and it's a lot of fun," says Jessica, 12, of Clarksville.

The project began when the four girls were in sixth grade and decided they wanted to study something that could benefit the environment.

Their initial book research led them to something called bioremediation, the way the earth naturally cleanses itself of pollutants.

With the aid of a computer data base search for the word at the Central Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore, the girls found an article from the Business Journal of Sacramento, Calif. The article quoted a supporter of bioremediation named Frank Slavensky, saying, "This is eighth-grade stuff . . . We should all know about it. It's not far-out stuff. It exists."

The girls called the writer of the article, obtained Mr. Slavensky's phone number and address, and asked him for help.

"He was very generous. Not only did he send them a carton of microbes for them to play with, he sent them a $200 check" to use for equipment for their experiments, said Annette Kuperman, who coordinates projects for the school's gifted and talented program.

The jug of microbes arrived with the mail at Clarksville Middle School's front office, where secretaries were taken aback by the liquid, which resembles sediment-rich apple cider.

"It smelled so bad they had to put it in a separate room, where nobody goes," Mrs. Kuperman says.

The young scientists deposited the noxious microbe brew in two beakers that contained oil and water to see what would happen, and were impressed by the way the oil coagulated into manageable clumps.

But their work was far from finished.

Now the girls are conducting a controlled experiment using only five plastic jugs, just like the one the microbes arrived in, taking the advice of Mr. Hoeksema, director of engineering at Columbia-based Martek Corp., a biosciences firm which specializes in products made from microalgae.

Four of the jugs have varying amount of microbes, oil and nutrients, and one control jug has no microbes. In the jugs with microbes, the girls have observed the slicks clumping and shrinking with each observation. The more microbes, the greater the degree of shrinking.

This, they believe, is proof that the microbes are doing more than just causing the oil to clump -- which by itself would make cleanup easier -- but actually consuming the floating crude.

Next year, the researchers will broaden their experiment to see how the microbes affect animal life -- in this case, planaria, or flatworms.

Sarah, 13, of Dayton, is hoping the magazine story will inspire others her age.

"I hope more kids will be involved after the article, and more women will be able to be scientists," she said.

"A lot of people think that boys are better in math and science and stuff," Sarah said.

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