Imperial College London

Genetic fortune-telling and engineering the Earth win young scientists writing prizes


Science challenge 2008 winners announced<em> - News Release</em>

Imperial College London news release

For immediate release
Wednesday 19 March 2008

Explaining how novel engineering techniques could save the world from global warming, and imagining a future where you can buy the complete sequence of your genome to find out how you might die, won two young budding science writers the Science Challenge 2008 last night, in a grand final ceremony held at the Science Museum.

Hassan Al Halwachi from Sherborne School in Dorset, and Erika Cule, a third year undergraduate studying biochemistry at Imperial College London, both won the 2008 Science Challenge essay competition sponsored by Shell and hosted by Imperial College London.

Erika's essay was a piece of creative writing in which she imagined a 16 year old girl in the future receiving her complete genome sequence for her birthday. The girl is pleased to discover she has a high estimated IQ, and is not at risk of any "nasty genetic surprises" such as Alzheimer's or Huntingdon's disease. However, the story is cut short when the girl steps out into a road and fails to notice an oncoming bus, thus suggesting that a full knowledge of your genetics would not necessarily be enough to ensure a long and healthy life.

Speaking after receiving her prize, Erika commented on the unusual, fictional style of her essay, saying: "I thought of an approach that no-one else would dare to take – I just had to do it!"

Hassan's essay suggested a number of geo-engineering methods for tackling climate change. This is a relatively new concept which targets the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere or aims to reduce the amount of sun reaching the Earth. Ideas discussed by Hassan include spraying droplets of seawater into the atmosphere to create clouds to deflect the sun's rays, and pumping urea into the oceans to promote the growth of microscopic phytoplanktons, which remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis.

He warns however, that the side-effects of such drastic interventions are not yet known: "These techniques should be tested and developed to make them viable, but they should not replace the current goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions," he said.

Hassan and Erika presented short talks about their essays to a judging panel of five top international scientists, business leaders and journalists, before being selected as winners from a shortlist of six school pupil finalists and six Imperial student finalists. The two winners' essays were shortlisted by Imperial academics from 240 school entries from all over the country, and 120 entries from Imperial students.


Vice President Shell Global Solutions presents winner Hassan with his trophy

Daniel Burrows, a third year undergraduate physics student at Imperial who helped to set up the Science Challenge competition three years ago, explains why he thinks encouraging written communication skills is so important among young scientists in schools and universities:

"Complex scientific concepts are at the heart of many of the biggest issues facing society today, from tackling climate change to preventing disease. More than ever before, the role of popular science writers and communicators is key to ensuring that the voting public is clued-up on the facts behind these important issues. The Science Challenge gives young scientists the chance to have a go at writing about things that matter to them, and I hope it will inspire some of our entrants to consider a career as science communicators in the future."

The winning school pupil, Hassan, wins a cheque for £2,000, and a VIP behind-the-scenes trip for his school to the National Physical Laboratory in Middlesex. All five school runners-up received a cheque for £100.


Winning Imperial student Erika Cule is congratulated by Sir Richard Sykes

Erika, the winning entrant from Imperial College, wins a cheque for £2,500, a MacBook and a trip to CERN in Switzerland to see the world's largest particle physics experiment – the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator.

Daniel Burrows congratulated both winners, saying: "The standard of writing by both the school entrants and Imperial students this year was extremely high, so the two winners should feel very proud of their work.

"The Science Challenge is going from strength to strength: we've had twice as many entries this year, and I'm delighted the young finalists had the chance to explain their ideas and opinions on some of the big scientific questions facing society to our panel of leading figures from the world of science."

The judging panel for the Science Challenge 2008 consisted of the Rector of Imperial College London, Sir Richard Sykes, Lord Robert Winston, Professor of Science and Society at Imperial, Dr Paul Snaith, Vice President of Shell Global Solutions, Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, Director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London, Pallab Ghosh, BBC Science Correspondent, and Dr Phillip Campbell, Editor-in-Chief of Nature and Nature Publications.

Five of the judges composed an essay question from which the competition entrants could choose. The questions were as follows:

• Sir Richard Sykes: "How would knowledge of my genetic make-up affect my lifestyle?"
• Lord Robert Winston: "Ever since early humans invented the handaxe, technology has increased the potential to destroy mankind. Are we sowing the seeds of our own destruction?"
• Dr Paul Snaith: "Satisfying the world’s spiralling energy demands whilst reducing greenhouse gas emissions presents today's scientists with a seemingly impossible task. Discuss."
• Sir Brian Hoskins: "To what extent is geoengineering the solution to the climate change problem?"
• Dr Phillip Campbell: "Should healthy people take drugs to enhance their cognitive abilities?"


For more information please contact:

Danielle Reeves, Imperial College London Press Office,
Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 2198
Mob: +44 (0)7803 886248

Notes to Editors:

1. For more information about the 2008 Royal College of Science Union Science Challenge go to

2. About Imperial College London:

Imperial College London - rated the world's fifth best university in the 2007 Times Higher Education Supplement University Rankings - is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research that attracts 12,000 students and 6,000 staff of the highest international quality. Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and business, delivering practical solutions that improve quality of life and the environment - underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture.


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