River Grace was the top winner of the 2013 Broadcom MASTERS. Here we catch up with him one year later to talk about what he is up to now and his advice for other young students interested in science.
How did your experience at Broadcom MASTERS, including winning the top award, impact your life?
Broadcom MASTERS has had a very positive effect on my life. Simply being part of the process changed how I think and deepened my intellectual curiosity and desire to engage in science. Many organizations have now taken note of my becoming the Broadcom MASTERS top winner of the Samueli Prize– from local nonprofit organizations to national and international groups like the Guardians of the Galaxy peer program and the Turtle Survival Alliance. But I think the most important thing given to me by the week in Washington, DC was that time itself – the days spent there were full of excitement, fun, and new friends who are just as deeply committed to science, math and engineering as I am. These new connections will carry me far: whether it be sharing ideas and assisting each other down the road, or just having fun on Skype calls with my fellow Broadcom MASTERS, as they’ve become a huge part of my life and some of my best friends.
Are you continuing your research on tortoises? What are you working on now?
I don’t think I’ll ever stop loving my tortoises and the research I do with them. I am continuing my work with them on a daily basis and I have given a variety of talks that use my research on tortoises as the centerpiece. In addition, I received an invitation to travel to Madagascar with the Turtle Survival Alliance to help study radiated tortoises in their natural habitat and to promote their conservation. And this past summer I traveled to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands where I visited the Charles Darwin Research Station to learn more about the Galapagos tortoises.
As for science fair, this year I am working with a different animal – the Brahminy blind snake. These little guys are tiny black snakes that actually live underground and look quite a bit like worms until examined closely. Also, they are extremely invasive – they’ve spread through the plant trade and are now more geographically widespread than any other terrestrial vertebrate species in the world. No one knows what impact they may have on ecosystems, but I believe that while the large invasive species may get the bulk of media attention, it is the tiny ones that may fundamentally alter natural ecosystems.
My research with these odd snakes is based upon their senses. They are called “blind snakes” because their extremely small eyes can’t be observed from the surface. However, I have found that they do have eyes, but they are located underneath the skin and scales of their head, and I’m curious to find out more about why they might still have eyes. If we can learn more about how these snakes perceive their world, then maybe we can figure out ways to stop them from doing any more damage to the environment. This is also an important opportunity to learn about the evolution of sensory systems in animals. Are the blind snakes really blind? Or do they somehow use their eyes for another purpose? It’s a question that nobody knows the answer to… for long (hopefully!).
You’ve had the opportunity to speak at multiple events, science fairs, etc. Can you tell us about that?
Since last year’s Broadcom MASTERS competition, I’ve been a presenter at many events. I’ve given talks about my work at the Recycle Brevard! festival, several times at the Brevard Zoo, and to a biology honors student group at the Florida Institute of Technology, to name a few. I also presented the story of my experience at the Broadcom MASTERS competition to all of the attendees at the Florida State Science and Engineering Fair (woo hoo! go Florida!). Several more speaking engagements are scheduled for this fall. Speaking at events like these is great fun because I help spread the word to the public about important issues, and I encourage young people like myself to get involved in science, math and engineering. After all, that’s what Broadcom MASTERS is all about!
Based off your experience in Broadcom MASTERS, you were selected to participate in the Guardians of the Galaxy peer mentor program. Can you tell us more about that?
Certainly! The Guardians of the Galaxy peer mentor program was a part of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy: Guardians of Good contest. This was a competition in which students could talk to distinguished “Galaxy peers” in their fields of interest via video chat. Then, they would create and submit a video on what they were doing to help be a “Guardian of the Galaxy” themselves, as well as what inspiration they took away from their peers. Instead of participating in this contest as an applicant, I actually served as a member of this Galaxy peer panel, working to help motivate and excite young people about their work. This was yet another great experience, as I was able to help spread inspiration to kids just like me!
What advice would you give this year’s Broadcom MASTERS finalists?
My best advice to you fortunate 30 finalists is simple: Don’t focus on winning, and just enjoy yourself. Of course you should do your best, but don’t worry yourself over whether you get an award or not – you are among the top 30 research students in the nation, and that’s pretty amazing already! You should also keep in mind that the experience you are about to have is probably one of the best you have ever had, so make sure you love it while it is still going on. While in Washington, DC you’ll get to meet the amazing Broadcom MASTERS staff and judges, see the amazing city, present your work, do all sorts of amazing science and engineering challenges, and meet 29 inspirational new friends. Overall, just have fun, do your best, and you will definitely get a ton out of this opportunity!
What are your future plans?
For the immediate future, my plans are simple: I want to keep doing the research I love, and continue to help inspire other people – young and not-so-young. Our generation will be running the world sooner than we might think, so I find it of extreme importance that as many of my peers as possible learn the importance and value of science, math and engineering. As for the more distant future… I’m still unsure where I want to go to college, but that will most likely be the next big step in my life. I don’t know where I will go after that, but I intend to keep feeding my passions and striving to do my best. There’s one thing I’m sure of – I’ll never forget my amazing Broadcom MASTERS experience.