The TH Interview: Erik Gustafson, America's Top Young Scientist of the Year!

Well folks, the theme for Discovery's Young Scientist Challenge this year was a green one; and what an incredible opportunity it was for 40 of the top young scientists in the nation who made their way to the finals in Washington D.C. last week. There they competed for a share of the $100K in scholarships and prizes along with the title of America's Top Young Scientist of the Year.

Turns out the sharpest young scientist in America is only 11 years-old, and he's Erik Gustafson, a genuine whiz kid from New York. He took home the title of America's Top Young Scientist last week, along with a $20K scholarship and the opportunity to make a special appearance on an upcoming episode of Mythbusters as well!

Now I had the chance to interview the man himself by phone and email this weekend; so you can see for yourself why he was chosen, out of thousands of initial entrants, to win top honors.

TreeHugger: This year's theme for the Young Scientist Challenge was a green one. Tell us about your project and how it relates to the environment.

Erik Gustafson: My science fair project was about acid rain. I was testing if there was a correlation between the volume of a stream and it's pH. My hypothesis was that when the volume of a stream rises the pH would decrease because of acid rain. During rain events the pH of the stream fell from 6.5 to 4.5.

It relates to the environment because it is testing if acid rain has an effect on streams. If acid rain continues to build, it will have a tremendous effect on stream life.

TH: There are so many things that compete for the time and interests of kids across America. What inspired you to get involved with the Young Scientist Challenge?

EG: I never dreamed I would win. I was showing my interest for science. When I got an opportunity to enter in DCYSC I took it because I thought it would be fun. To me science is one of the most compelling things. It makes me want to find answers. It is very fun to try to figure things out, and when I do I am very happy.

TH: Tell us a bit about the process you went through to even reach the finals last week in Washington, D.C. As I understand it you had to go through various levels of competitions to get there. Did you ever think you were going to make it all the way?

EG: In order to get to the finalist week of DCYSC I had to go through numerous stages. The first was to create a science fair project for a local science fair. The local science fair selected me to go to the regional science fair. I exhibited my science fair there and they selected me to enter in DCYSC. I filled out the application forms, and wrote the essays, and sent the information in. I was then selected for the semi-finals, and then the finals in D.C.
I never thought I would be one of the final 40 kids in Washington D.C. With all of the smart kids who enter science fairs across the nation, I didn't think I had a chance.

TH: Once you reached the finals, there were a series of challenges to tackle along with your team members, and you obviously made it to the top of a very elite group of kids. What was your favorite challenge, and why?

EG: My favorite challenge was building a model of a green building. The building had to have no light bulbs and have no direct sunlight coming into the building, so it would be energy efficient. We had to build a model of the building to show that our design worked. It was a very interesting challenge because of its complexity — every time you fix one thing, it created another one. We had to design and build a scale model of a building in only an hour and a half. My team worked very well on the challenge, and we just barely finished it.

TH: Some of the challenges were more difficult than others. Tell us which one your team found most challenging, and how the group of you approached it.

EG: I think the most difficult challenge was compacting trash. We had to figure out the average density of the average bag of trash, and compact enough bags of trash to fill one cubic foot. We also had to make a museum quality label for the box of trash. We started by calculating the average density of a bag of trash. Then we had to figure out the best way to compact the trash with the compacter we had. The compactor we had exerted 40 tons of pressure per inch, but it was really slow, and we only had 90 minutes to complete this project.

TH: Your mom filled us in a bit about the extraordinary way in which the people of your hometown of Homer, NY treated you upon your return with the title of America's Next Top Young Scientist. Tell us in your own words what they did, and how it felt to be so honored by them and the Discovery Channel.

EG: The whole school changed their day in order to make signs and plan a party for me. At the edge of town a police car and fire truck met me and escorted me through the town, past the schools. The students and teachers lined the parking lot of both schools to welcome me back. Almost every kid had a sign in their hand. There were over 900 people yelling and screaming and all chanting "Erik, Erik, Erik " until I went inside the school. Then they went into the school auditorium and the band played and they all sang our school song "Blue Pride." It took quite a while for them to settle down, but then they asked me to give a speech about my experience. It was a very overwhelming experience.

TH: So what did you tell them, and what suggestions do you have for people everywhere?

EG: I told them that climate change is no joke. I explained to them that electricity is produced by burning fossil fuels, and burning fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide. I said that we all need to do our part to help slow down climate change. Every single kid can make a difference. Whether it is turning off a light bulb, or putting in solar panels. Anything we can do helps. We are depending on my generation in order to save the world. Even though scientists are doing great things to slow down climate change we need to do our part too.

My suggestions are that people turn off appliances that aren't being used, and do anything they can to save energy. We can do things like, buying less stuff, and putting a purifier on faucets instead of buying bottled water. Every time you need to replace a light bulb, replace it with a compact florescent bulb. I know that these deeds are small, but they do make a difference in the long run.

TH: Well, the title of America's Top Young Scientist of the Year is definitely a prestigious one. What do you plan to use your title to accomplish in the year ahead?

EG: I plan to be an ambassador for science. I will use this title to help communicate the importants of science. With this title it will make people listen to me, and allow me to communicate my ideas to the world. If enough kids like me talk about this stuff, maybe the adults will catch on. But actually, I do not think it has actually sunk in that I really won this contest. I haven't had enough time to really think about it.

TH: Well Erik, enjoy the year ahead!

See also::

What Does a Volcano, a Paintball, and Your Bologna Sandwich Have in Common?
The E-Car: A Hit With Kids of All Ages
Kids Pulverize Trash With 40 Ton Shop Press: Learn Lessons of Sustainability
Discovery's Young Scientist Challenge

Tags: Contests | TH Interview