Oswego teen scientist wins medal creating 'next-generation' biofuel

 
 
Updated 10/1/2015 2:19 PM
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  • Tavis Reed won gold in the National Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics competition in Philadelphia over the summer but wasn't around to collect his prize. Instead, he chose to be at his school, the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, to tutor younger students.

      Tavis Reed won gold in the National Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics competition in Philadelphia over the summer but wasn't around to collect his prize. Instead, he chose to be at his school, the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, to tutor younger students. Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • Tavis Reed, a 17-year-old senior at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, won the 2015 gold medal in the chemistry/biochemistry division of the National Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics competition, besting more than 700 students from 150 ACT-SO chapters across the nation.

      Tavis Reed, a 17-year-old senior at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, won the 2015 gold medal in the chemistry/biochemistry division of the National Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics competition, besting more than 700 students from 150 ACT-SO chapters across the nation. Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • Tavis Reed's love for science started like it does for a lot of kids -- by watching "Star Wars" movies. "I always thought I wanted to do (work) with space, but when I came to IMSA, I found I really liked biology and chemistry," he said.

      Tavis Reed's love for science started like it does for a lot of kids -- by watching "Star Wars" movies. "I always thought I wanted to do (work) with space, but when I came to IMSA, I found I really liked biology and chemistry," he said. Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

Seventeen-year-old Tavis Reed is determined to make a difference in the world by helping mitigate or even repair environmental damage -- and he's already on his way, having applied those principles to develop an environmentally friendly energy source and win a prestigious national science competition.

"From when I was really young to now, I've seen the climate changing a little bit. If that continues for a long period of time, I'll probably be around when things get really bad," said Tavis, a senior at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora. "I want to work now to fix the things I can, to lessen the negative impact."

Tavis won the 2015 gold medal in the chemistry/biochemistry division of the National Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics competition, besting more than 700 students from 150 ACT-SO chapters across the nation.

He did so by developing a process -- for which he has a provisional patent -- for the production of cellulosic ethanol, a "next-generation biofuel" made from cellulose, the structural part of plants.

The process uses bacteria to make ethanol as a potential fuel source in a cheaper and more environmentally conscious manner. He's now working to find a way to scale up his research and make sure its results can be repeated in large quantities.

"That's really important to me," he said. "I feel like for my generation, the environmental impact that humans have on the world is a lot more evident than it has been in earlier decades."

Tavis is unfailingly enthusiastic about science, said Sarah Soltau, his mentor through Argonne National Laboratory's ACT-SO high school research program.

"He's got many more ideas than I'd expect as a high school student," she said. "He's gone above and beyond anyone else I've seen at the high school level -- and some even in college."

His research has even taught Soltau new things, such as ways to commercialize research.

"I've been forced to learn a lot so I can keep up with (Tavis' project)," she said.

IMSA chemistry teacher John Thurmond, who worked with Tavis on his research project, said the Oswego teen is thorough and forward-thinking.

"Tavis displays the unique combination of kindness, intelligence and hard work which makes him an ideal student," Thurmond said. "He goes above and beyond what is expected. There is no limit to Tavis' potential. If he dreams it, he can accomplish it."

The ACT-SO award was announced in July at the 106th Convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, held in Philadelphia.

But Tavis wasn't there to claim his prize -- an iPad and $2,500. Instead, he left the convention early to get back to IMSA and tutor incoming students as part of a two-week summer program. If you ask him what accomplishment makes him most proud, he says it's the tutoring.

"I had a lot of mentors in life who've helped me out, helped me get my projects done and helped me improve academically. That's something that I really appreciate, so I want to help out others," he said. "That's what happened to me, so I want to give back."

Tavis was self-motivated from a young age, always taking his learning a step further with self-taught online courses, said his father, Thomas Reed, an engineer and now customer service manager for General Electric.

Tavis' mother, Crystal, works for GE as a buyer. His older brother, Kalin, 21, is studying architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Excelling academically hasn't been Tavis' only focus. As early as elementary school, he was a member of the environmental club and an organization that helped students with disabilities, his father said. "He always wanted to give back," he said.

He's also an accomplished trombone player, having won the gold medal two years ago in the national ACT-SO competition for music composition.

"I did consider being a musician back in middle school, but it never appealed to me as much as science," he said.

Tavis' love for science started like it does for a lot of kids -- by watching "Star Wars" movies.

"I really liked the idea of space shuttles and flying cars," he said. "I always thought I wanted to do (work) with space, but when I came to IMSA, I found I really liked biology and chemistry."

Attending IMSA -- where he has access to top-notch instruction and resources -- has been a fantastic experience, Tavis said.

"Being around so many intelligent people, knowing we're all here to do well and knowing we all have goals to get out of IMSA, it's really amazing," he said. "And it's a really fun time."

Not that doing research is always fun and exciting, he admits. He even risked losing all his work when the power went out over the summer last year, killing all his bacteria.

"I had to get new samples. The school paid for it -- it was very expensive, like $400," he said. "That was really stressful."

Tavis wants to study chemical engineering, ideally at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He might get a Ph.D. and go into research but doesn't want to get trapped in a single field of study.

No matter what, he will continue focusing on the environment.

"It's something that impacts all of us," he said. "No matter where you are in the world, if someone is releasing a whole bunch of coal or smog in the atmosphere, it will impact everyone. And we don't have space travel to get off this world. We're stuck here. So people need to be more conscious of what is happening to the world, truly."

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