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Curiosity is most important trait in scientists – Matas Navickas, EUCYS prize winner

Matas Navickas won a third prize of EUR 3 500 at this year's European Union Contest for Young Scientists, held in Warsaw.
Matas Navickas won a third prize of EUR 3 500 at this year's European Union Contest for Young Scientists, held in Warsaw.

Curiosity, creativity and tenacity are three vital qualities for young scientists, says 18-year-old Lithuanian Matas Navickas, who won third prize at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists in September for his work creating a flowering apple tree in a test tube.

Could you explain a bit about the project you entered in the European Union Contest for Young Scientists?

My project was to create a technology to shorten the juvenile period in apple trees. I produced a miniature flowering apple tree of the species Malus baccata x Malus prunifolia, grown in a test tube. This sort of apple tree grows up to seven metres in height, blossoms red flowers, and grows apples of about one centimetre in size. In my test tubes, though, it is only five centimetres in height; moreover, after flowering it could be transferred and grown in pots.

I performed lots of experiments on selecting plant hormones, testing the medium for growing and propagating the tree, and initiating flowering. I also did genetic analysis in order to find a flowering initiation gene.

What are the uses of your work?

‘The developed flowering technology enables people to grow this mini-tree easily, and could also be useful for scientists working on shortening the juvenile period of plants – the time until the first flowering.

A miniature flowering apple tree. Image courtesy of Matas Navickas.A miniature flowering apple tree. Image courtesy of Matas Navickas

‘It expands the knowledge in the area and in the future, scientists can use my data for further experiments. The technology is used for shortening the juvenile period (important for breeders as it means the trees produce apples quicker). It could be used for business.’

What are you going to do with the EUR 3 500 prize money?    

‘I’m going to invest some of the prize money in my own laboratory because I have already founded one. The lab was invented because I started to work in plant biotechnology when I was ten years old. When you are small, no one wants to give you work in a big laboratory. It is a functional laboratory. It is in a garage basement and is divided into different scientific fields: plant biotechnology, cell biology and genetic research.

‘I got support from my parents and other scientists, who donated equipment and reagents. Some were friends of my parents and some I approached by going to universities and making relationships and friendships.’

‘When you work in scientific fields there are a lot of mistakes. Never give up.’

Matas Navickas

What would you like to do when you finish school?

‘At the moment I am in the 12th grade. After school I’d like to study molecular biology. My interest is in plant biotechnology and molecular biology. It is amazing to study life at that level. My career intention is to become a scientist and possibly go into research. I’ll study at university and then see.’

What is your opinion of the EUCYS competition?

‘Everything started in Lithuania with a competition in my country, but it’s a different level with an international competition. I don’t have any words to express what I think about that competition because it is so amazing. I met new people with very bright personalities and I met scientists.’

What has happened since the competition?

‘I am communicating by email with one of the scientists on the jury who I met at the contest. Also we have a group on Facebook (the EUCYS Warsaw 2014 group) and we are conversing with other contestants and planning collaborative projects. So I think it will be very helpful in the future.’

What is your advice to other young scientists?

‘I think I would advise that they should never give up. When you work in scientific fields there are a lot of mistakes. Never give up and be creative also, that’s very important. But the main thing that’s important for scientific work is curiosity.’

European Union Contest for Young Scientists

The EUCYS contest was set up in 1989 to help young researchers exchange ideas and encourage them towards a career in science. Many previous winners have gone on to successful careers in research at institutions such as the European Space Agency and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).

To enter the competition, young researchers aged between 14 and 20 must have previously won a first prize in their national science competition, making it one of the most challenging science competitions for young people in the world.

The 2014 competition was held in Warsaw, Poland, where 110 young scientists from 36 countries presented 77 projects to a jury composed of prominent European scientists. More than 30 prizes were awarded at a ceremony on 23 September, including three first prizes of EUR 7 000, three second prizes of EUR 5 000 and three third prizes of EUR 3 500.

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