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Home DNA lab wins EU young scientist prize

Fred Turner, 18, won first prize for making a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine in his bedroom.
Fred Turner, 18, won first prize for making a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine in his bedroom.

An 18-year-old who made a machine to multiply DNA in his bedroom won a top prize at Europe’s 25th young scientist award, and he plans to use the prize money to invest in his own laboratory.

‘I’m going to invest it back into the lab and into equipment and hopefully use that to do my science,’ said Fred Turner. The British teenager won one of three EUR 7 000 first prizes at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists (EUCYS) in Prague, Czech Republic, for building a home-made polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine.

He decided to build the machine as he needed one for a lab he wanted to set up in his basement to pursue his interest in genetics, but could not afford the 3 000 GB pounds (EUR 3 600) price tag. ‘I thought maybe I could build my own to a much lower cost,’ he said after receiving the award on 24 September.

‘The atmosphere is amazing, so many young people and everyone is excited about science.’

Fred Turner, 18, 2013 EUCYS prize winner

The young geneticist learnt how to make the electronic circuits he needed on the Internet, and took many of the parts from old equipment. ‘A couple of cables and connectors were scavenged off old PCs, a couple of resistors and transistors were scavenged off an old VCR,’ he said.

His brother has red hair, and one of the first things he did with the machine was work out why it is different from his own brown colour. ‘It turns out it’s only a single letter difference (in the DNA) between red hair compared to my brown hair,’ he said.

Excited about science

The European Commission set up EUCYS in 1989 to bring talented young researchers from across Europe together, and encourage them to pursue careers in science.

‘The atmosphere is amazing, so many young people and everyone is excited about science, really friendly and talking to everyone else about their projects,’ said Turner, who wants to go on and run his own company in the field of synthetic biology.

Ciara Judge, 15, Emer Hickey, 15, Sophie Healy-Thow, 16, from Ireland also won a first prize for their work on seed germination.Ciara Judge, 15, Emer Hickey, 15, Sophie Healy-Thow, 16, from Ireland also won a first prize for their work on seed germination.

Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, said: ‘It is particularly great to see the mix of curiosity-driven research and more applied projects.

‘We need more young people to take up STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) at school, and I especially want to encourage more young women to pursue careers in science and technology.’

The other two first prizes went to Ireland’s Ciara Judge, 15, Emer Hickey, 15, and Sophie Healy-Thow, 16, for their research showing a type of bacteria can improve the rate of crop germination, and 18-year-old Finn Perttu Pölönen for making a clock-like device with twelve keys on the face that helps students learn the names of notes, chords and scales.

Connecting young scientists for 25 years

The European Commission launched the EU Contest for Young Scientists (EUCYS) in 1989 in Brussels after the then European Commission President Jacques Delors decided to take over a Europe-wide science fair that Dutch electronics firm Royal Philips had been running since 1968.

The number of participants has increased every year since 1989 from 59 to 126 in 2013, with a peak in 2009 in Paris of 137 contestants. In total, 2 451 contestants have taken part and 633 prizes have been handed out.

To enter the contest, young researchers aged between 14 and 21 must have previously won a competition for young scientists in their own countries, making it one of the hardest science competitions for young people in the world.

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