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CERN, ginger afros and the Gadget Show: How the National Science + Engineering Competition has changed my life

CERN, ginger afros and the Gadget Show: How the National Science + Engineering Competition has changed my life

By Fred Turner, the UK Young Engineer of the Year 2013. Fred won the senior engineering and technology category of the National Science + Engineering Competition earlier this year, and has recently finished his A levels. He’ll be starting his degree in biochemistry at the University of Oxford in the autumn.

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I’ve always been interested in genetics and have always wanted to read my own genetic code, so about a year ago I decided to try, but soon realised the equipment required is far too expensive for an A level student to afford! After doing some research I decided to try and build the equipment instead. The one thing that I really needed was a PCR machine, which I built for about £250 – much less than the cost of a commercial machine which can cost thousands of pounds.  The best way to describe a PCR machine is a DNA photocopier, it takes a small amount of DNA and makes many copies of a specific region, which is very useful for carrying out a variety of genetic tests.

Fred and his brother

Once I had completed my lab, I entered the equipment I had built into the National Science + Engineering Competition where I won first place in the senior engineering category and was made UK Young Engineer of the Year 2013. This has opened up some amazing opportunities for me, including appearing on the Gadget Show, BBC Breakfast news and visiting CERN in Switzerland.

I was really pleased to get the opportunity to demonstrate my project on The Gadget Show with Rachel Riley and Jason Bradbury. I had a brilliant day and both Jason and Rachel were so friendly. My brother also joined me on the show, sporting his distinctive ginger afro, which was the basis of part of my project. My PCR machine can be used to carry out genetic tests and one test I have been working on is testing for the “ginger gene”. This test was particularly significant for my family as my brother has an enormous ginger afro!

While on the show I took a DNA sample from Jason which I took back to my lab and tested for the ginger gene. It is possible to carry one copy of the ginger gene and not actually be ginger as the gene is recessive and people who carry the gene can still have ginger children. It is well known that the ginger gene is recessive but I wanted to find out exactly what it was about the ginger gene that made my brother ginger. Through various experiments I have managed to show that in my brother it is the deletion of a single letter A from the gene MC1R which causes him to have ginger hair. You can find out the result of Jason’s test by watching the show on Monday 15 July at 8pm on Channel 5.

Winning the competition really has changed my life and I’ve had some amazing opportunities, for instance last week I was able to visit CERN, the home of the Large Hadron Collider as part of my prize. I can safely say it was one of most interesting experiences of my life, the collaboration of so many scientists, engineers and many other professions to work on such an incredible project was astounding and just demonstrates what an interesting time it is to be a scientist or engineer!

I would absolutely encourage anyone interested in science and engineering and even those who perhaps haven’t considered it before, to get involved in the National Science + Engineering Competition. It’s a brilliant opportunity and working on a project that really interests you will teach you a lot as well as actually being great fun to work on. I almost didn’t enter the Competition as it was coming up to the deadline for entry and I was very busy with school work but I am so glad I did, so for anyone thinking of getting involved, go for it!

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