Conrad Challenge still giving kids their ‘moonshot’

One day, when the world needs another vaccine, it might be produced using a method designed by three Forsyth County students whose work recently won a prestigious Conrad Challenge Award.

The Conrad Challenge is a global STEM competition for high school students honoring Apollo astronaut, Pete Conrad.

For their project, Brian Yoo, Vishnu Dontu and Sahil Sood – seniors at Lambert High School – used tobacco plants, instead of eggs, as bioreactors to grow vaccines.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

The students said basic lab testing showed the plants produced high concentrations of viral proteins needed for vaccine production. They plan to keep testing and collecting data with the ultimate goal of creating a full-functioning vaccination system.

“The use of tobacco plants is more efficient and cost-effective and has an overall higher success rate,” explained Sahil. “Plus, we dodged the problem of allergies – some people are allergic to eggs and can’t take a vaccine that was produced using eggs.”

The students’ two-year project TobacCine won top place in their competition category in the 2021-22 Conrad Challenge. The award comes with a distinctive medallion and an opportunity to apply for a pro bono patent.

The Challenge is the centerpiece program of the Conrad Foundation, a nonprofit promoting student-centered learning. Through the competition, thousands of young people work in small teams with an adult mentor to design commercially viable products to solve some world problem or future need.

Students from The Westminster Schools in Atlanta also participated in last year’s Challenge, and teams from other area schools have signed up for this year’s competition. Registration is open through Oct. 14 at www.conradchallenge.org/conrad-challenge.

Lambert’s team members set out to solve the problem of low vaccination rates by creating a more efficient production system. They started their project as the first COVID-19 vaccines were slowly entering the marketplace.

The Conrad Challenge honors the legacy of Apollo 12 astronaut Charles “Pete” Conrad, who in November 1969 became the third man to walk on the moon. He spent 20 years as a U.S. Navy test pilot and astronaut, then launched four companies devoted to commercializing space travel.

His wife, Nancy Conrad, started the foundation after his death in 1999. She wanted to keep his entrepreneurial spirit alive and engage young people, something he felt was important.

“It’s fun, it’s interesting, it’s dynamic,” Atlantan Nancy Conrad said of the Challenge, now in its 17th year.

As a former teacher, Conrad has dedicated her life to purpose-driven education where students are engaged and active in their learning.

“Creating things from what you learn is really where the magic is,” she said.

Nancy Conrad moved from Washington, D.C., to Peachtree Hills Place, a senior living community in Buckhead, in 2020 and remains active in the foundation. She meets students worldwide and their projects continue to amaze her.

Pete’s story offers the motivation behind the program. Pete had problems reading and spelling and he hated school as a child. He would skip out after roll call, go to an airfield, and earn money for flying time. He made his first solo flight at age 16; that’s what he loved, said his wife.

His life’s direction began to change once he transferred to a small boarding school in upstate New York, and the headmaster took an interest in him and how he learned. He began to excel and earned a scholarship to Princeton University and the Navy ROTC program.

“That’s what his story was – an educator took a kid under his wing, and that young man got his ‘moonshot,’” Conrad said.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

The Conrad Challenge gives thousands of young people that same “moonshot” opportunity.

Lambert students said that while winning a top award is terrific, it doesn’t compare to the value of the professional feedback they received and the opportunity to meet leaders in so many career fields.

“The entire experience, being around so many other people who hopefully want to change the world someday, was the prize,” said Brian.

His teammates agreed. Vishnu said participating in the Conrad Challenge developed his passion for innovation and business, and Sahil said he received good advice on laying a foundation for a future career in medicine.

“I’m really appreciative of how Nancy was able to collect these various people who are experts and present them to us and allow us to talk with them and understand their professions,” said Vishnu.

Conrad said Gen Z students amaze her because they don’t live within borders or see their limitations.

“They see the world the same way Pete did when he stood on the moon and looked back to earth,” Conrad said.

“The Gen Z generation, I have so much faith in them,” she continued. “People ask me, ‘where do you get your energy?’ It’s hope. These kids give you hope. It’s so amazing when you just let them dream.”


MORE DETAILS

The Conrad Challenge is dedicated to creating collaborative, student-centered learning opportunities that foster innovation and entrepreneurship.

Student teams develop commercially viable products to solve challenges in one of four categories: aerospace and aviation, energy and environment, cyber technology and security or health and nutrition

  • Deadline to register: Oct. 14.
  • Qualifications: Teams of two to five students between the ages of 13 and 18 are eligible to participate. There are no geographical restrictions and a sponsoring organization (school, club, etc.) is not required.
  • For more information: www.conradchallenge.org/conrad-challenge.