Sixth formers handed awards by Nobel Prize winner

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Three North Wales sixth-formers have been handed awards by a Nobel Prize winner, for their scientific research into plant genes.

The Ysgol Emrys ap Iwan students were praised for their work on tackling crop shortages due to climate change, by genetic scientist Professor Sir Martin Evans – 2007 Nobel Prize winner for medicine.

Ben Stone, George Goodall and Mike White have all now been offered places at Cardiff University – where the professor is Chancellor – to study sciences.

The teenagers won sought-after places on the nationwide Nuffield Foundation project, which sees sixth-formers working alongside professional scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians.

They spent five weeks at Aberystwyth University’s world-renowned plant sciences department, working on gene projects, researching what makes some plants more resilient to drought and pests. At the end they presented their findings at a research symposium in Cardiff, where they were handed awards by Professor Evans, and were able to discuss his Nobel award-which he had with him.

Ysgol Emrys ap Iwan head of Biology Gemma Dale said: “Thousands of students across the UK apply for these placements every year, and it is very much like a tough job application, with an essay, CV and references.

“We were delighted when three of our students were accepted and then invited to go to Aberystwyth to take part in the research. They were only 17 and were able to spend time on the campus just like undergraduates, so that gave them a real insight to life at university.

“It was gene discovery in action — they were looking at plant genes to see if these are linked to certain agricultural traits, for example, testing genes to check their link to leaf expansion rate. This obviously has repercussions for trying to alleviate things like crop shortages if you can find out how to make plants grow bigger and faster.

“They were also simulating insect bites on plants to check their physiological response. Again, this is potentially important when considering how to control pests as the climate changes.

“Afterward they collated their work into a large poster and presented it to the symposium in Cardiff, where they were given awards by Professor Evans, who had his Nobel Prize with him.”

The Professor is now Chancellor of Cardiff University, where he was previously Director of Biosciences. He won the Nobel Prize with fellow scientists Mario Capecchi and Oliver Smithies, for their work on stem cells in genetically modified mice, which are vital for medical research.

Project leaders from Aberystwyth University will be heading to Ysgol Emrys ap Iwan this month to talk to students about the research, after being so impressed by Ben, George and Mike.

Ben, 18, from Kinmel Bay, is now planning to study for a biology degree after this summer’s A-levels.  He said: “We mainly worked on computers with the project, editing details of the plants.

“I really enjoyed my time there and it has helped me to decide what to study at university. I’ve got offers of places and I am sure that my time with the Nuffield Foundation helped with my applications.”

Mike, 17, is aiming to study chemistry, after being inspired by the project. “We all got offers from five universities, without needing to do interviews, which is unusual.

“The project was very interesting — and meeting a Nobel Prize winner was amazing. He was very helpful and that made me want to go to Cardiff University to study.”

The research involved a lot of computer work, explained 17-year-old George, from Kinmel Bay, and that has helped shaped his decision to study mechanical engineering.

“This was a great experience, which I found really interesting. I am very interested in computers and this project has shown me how different parts of the world of science come together.”

Ysgol Emrys ap Iwan head teacher Lee Cummins said: “I am extremely proud of the learners and their research, and hope that it has helped to inspire them to future careers in science.

“Meeting a Nobel Prize winner is an honour that they will be able to talk about when they go to interviews, for years to come. Each of these three learners were offered places at five universities, without having an interview, which is a clear indication of their level of achievement.

“We constantly encourage our learners to aim high and to dare to achieve, and support them through school clubs and projects, covering science and technology through to the arts and sports.”

The school, which dates back to 1899, has more than 1,100 learners with 140 teaching and support staff. In summer 2014 it had its best ever set of exam results.