Intel STS 2012 Finalist Continues His Research on Methane at CALTech | Society for Science & the Public
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Intel STS 2012 Finalist Continues His Research on Methane at CALTech

April 25, 2013

Kurtis Carsch from Plano, Texas, now a freshman studying chemistry at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), describes his experiences as an Intel Science Talent Search (Intel STS) 2012 finalist, what inspired him up until that point, and what he is up to now.

What was your experience being an Intel Science Talent Search finalist like?

Attending the Intel Science Talent Search competition in Washington, DC granted me the incredible opportunity to meet other high school seniors passionate about their fields of research. Although we each had our own interests, we all connected over our science backgrounds and common experiences. At this event, asking each other questions about science was perfectly normal and led to lengthy conversations. After rounds of mind-boggling random questions (I had to describe wildebeest migration patterns and why humans typically don’t self-combust) and frequent presentations of our research, we all enjoyed the social aspects of the competition: playing card games, watching magic tricks, visiting museums in DC, eating incredible food, bowling, and shaking hands with the President! 

Can you provide a short description of your research project and how you initially became interested in this topic/science in general?

Growing up, my father and I would discuss comparative anatomy, business strategies, and personal goal setting at his veterinary clinic. My mother, a schoolteacher, encouraged persistence in academic studies, timeliness, fortitude, integrity, and effective communication skills. Both of my parents were supportive of my desire to enroll in the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science for my junior and senior years in high school.

For my Intel STS research project, I modeled a novel set of catalysts for the conversion of methane into methanol to help reduce the activation barrier (the energy required for a reaction) by lowering the energy “wall” computationally through the integration of various catalysts. My research seeks to guide the Center for Catalytic Hydrocarbon Functionalization, located at the University of Virginia, in the selection and synthesis of catalysts that are more energy efficient. My contribution will reduce experimental trial-and-error runs, minimize costs, and maximize safety. My research will aid in converting extracted natural gas (70 - 90% methane gas) into synthesized methanol (a precursor for many industrial chemicals), providing transportation fuel at a price cheaper than petroleum.

How did doing original research and participating in events like the Intel STS affect your future education and career plans?

Throughout middle school and most of high school, I entered my research projects in local science fairs. I developed a skill set around explaining my research endeavors to a general audience and learned about the research of other individuals.

Attending the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, hosted at the University of North Texas, provided me with extraordinary resources due to the ubiquity of available research labs. Upon enrollment, I joined a computational chemistry research group in which I modeled catalysts theorized to convert natural gas into a more commercially friendly form. Through this experience, I gained more insight into chemistry that helped greatly in the classroom. Compiling my results offered a first-hand experience at writing research reports and presenting to an audience, which eventually culminated into two separate publications and a funding presentation.

As part of the Science Talent Search, the judges asked us a wide array of various science questions, testing our critical thinking ability given time constraints. I learned how to better approach interviews and how to interpolate trends from isolated data points.

What are you up to now?

I am writing this blog post while sitting in Ricketts House as a freshman at Caltech. I plan to receive dual degrees in chemical engineering, with a materials emphasis, and chemistry. Whereas the theory and potential of chemistry interest me, chemical engineering provides a versatile perspective of materials with applications in both academia and industry. Although I am still unsure of my route post-Caltech, I would like to explore accessing alternative energy via catalytic processes.

Research-wise, I am transitioning this term from a computational lab to an experimental lab. Since my junior year of high school, I have conducted expansive research on methane utilization and natural gas fuel cells via computational modeling. Since I believe that wet bench experiments should complement my theoretical background, I will temporarily switch labs to work on developing different cerium oxide derivatives that will produce high fuel yields under illumination.

Caltech provides a communal atmosphere in which science is a welcomed topic of conversation. Science jokes, although sometimes overused and corny, are common and usually generate a crowd of laughter, typically in the form of mathematical induction references and poorly timed puns. The small student body allows for closer connections with other students, building stronger bonds. The access to research opportunities, rigorous academics, and a like-minded student body provides constant enjoyment.

Do you have any advice for young students interested in science?

For students interested in science, I would encourage students to keep persisting through complicated materials. It may seem difficult in the beginning, but the material will eventually become easier over time with a stronger background.

For students selected as one of the forty Intel STS finalists, I would recommend showcasing your passion—everyone is going to have outstanding research, but conveying passion for the material requires a relaxed and confident approach to the material.