Boca’s Hannah Herbst Named America’s Top Young Scientist For Her Project On Harnessing Renewable Ocean Energy
America's top young scientist lives in Boca Raton.
She's 15-year-old Hannah Herbst, and she was awarded this distinction—and a cool $25,000—in mid-October for her work with harnessing energy from the ocean's currents.
Hannah competed in the 2015 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge and beat out nine other young finalists with her renewable energy prototype, which she hopes could provide developing countries with access to stable electricity.
During the four days she spent in Minnesota for the competition, Hannah worked alongside 3M scientist Jeffrey Emslander as her mentor.
"I'm really fascinated by his job, where he's just making everyday life better by applying science to life," said Hannah, who came out of the competition knowing she'd like to one day work for 3M herself.
Hannah said she went into the final competition feeling nervous but impressed by everyone around her.
"All of their projects were very science-y and programming-oriented, and I'm not that great of a programmer. … I was a little intimidated by that because my project is not a coding project," she said.
Still, Hannah knew that working with the other finalists would make it the most memorable week of her life. Sure enough, hearing her name called out as the first-place winner solidified that.
"I just couldn't believe it," she said.
Hannah became aware of the issue of energy poverty through her 9-year-old pen pal in Ethiopia. Hannah connected with the young girl through Compassion International, a nonprofit her church works with to help sponsor children living in poverty.
Through their communication, Hannah learned her pen pal lived in a tin hut with no flooring, no air conditioning and none of the electrical luxuries people in developed countries enjoy.
"She doesn't have access to these devices that I take for granted everyday," Hannah said.
Growing up in a coastal city fascinated by the waters that surround her, Hannah came up with the ocean energy solution while she was out boating.
"That moment in the Boca Inlet, it kind of all connected," she said. "It's just that moment of, 'Eureka, I've got it!'"
Hannah discovered her love of science after her parents enrolled her in an engineering and technology program one summer. She had always been interested in sports and theater, but in seventh grade, Hannah's parents decided it was time for her to try something new.
"At first I didn't want to be there. I was the only girl and it was all guys. My opinion was influenced by these stereotypes," she said. "After just a few days, I was really into robotics and programming."
Now a student at Florida Atlantic University High School, Hannah is a freshman in high school dual-enrolled in college courses and on track to earn a bachelor's degree. Though she's not sure yet what major she'll declare, Hannah is certain of one thing: "Definitely some kind of science."
Hannah plans to continue working under her mentor on her renewable energy prototype over the next couple of years. She wants to figure out workarounds for problems that may arise when the concept is actually applied to the natural world.
"I want to get my device deployed and figure out some more real-world problems," she said.
Hear Hannah Herbst talk about her prototype in the contest video, below.