When Diya Vincent applied for the Big Bang UK Young Scientist of the Year 2020 with her project on microgreens grown in an aquarium indoors and fertilised with goldfish poop, little did she expect to bag the prize money of £2,000.
“There were 1,000 applicants in the preliminary round and this was my first attempt. It made me nervous though I was excited to present my idea borrowed from what I have seen my grandfather do in Thiruvananthapuram,” says the 12-year-old in a phone interview from Birmingham, UK. “He has a small pond filled with colourful small fish in his garden outside and he grows spinach in it,” she says.
Diya, however, tweaked the idea and grew microgreens in her home aquarium with some help from her pet goldfish. “I wanted to make it bit more challenging and also apply the sciences learnt in school,” she says. Of course, the fun part was she got to buy four more goldfishes in the bargain for her project.
Diya tried three different methods to grow the microgreens indoors. In the first, she used unfertilised water with soluble micronutrients such as phosporous, nitrate and potassium. In the second , she used naturally fertilised water from an aquarium with tropical fish (guppies and mollies) in it. The plant roots absorbed the water with the help of wick cloths. In the third she used the water from her gold fish tank and let the water age for a week with the fish waste to make it rich with nitrates. The water was kept in continuous circulation with the help of a small water pump powered by a solar panel, and styrofoam pipes were used to grow the microgreens.
The third method was the fastest and delivered a harvest of microgreens within 10 days. “The cress and the wheatgrass went straight into our family bowl of salad and sandwiches,” she laughs.
From the preliminary round, Diya was shortlisted for the finals with 300 students from all over UK. But in the next five months, the world changed. The prelims were held in October and the finalists were supposed to meet and present their projects at the National Exhibition Centre in Solihull, England in March. With COVID-19, social distancing and lockdown , the students were instead asked to make a five-minute video about their individual projects showcasing their motivation, methods and real-world applications. The results were notified through email and declared in a YouTube video last month-end.
Diya is one of the youngest top prize winners ever in the Big Bang UK Young Scientists competition, that is held annually for school students between 12 and 18 years of age. The national contest is designed to recognise and reward young people’s achievements in all areas of STEM (Science, Technology, engineering and mathematics) and help them build skills.
Diya realises the importance of her project in these Corona-stricken days. “Microgreens are a simple way of including fresh ingredients into your daily cooking. And you can grow them in the comfort of your home too,” she says and hopes more people will take to it gradually as in the new-normal , it will perhaps besafest to grow your own greens and eat them too.
Now, Diya wants to grow lettuce and spinach in her goldfish aquarium. She plans to donate her prize money to charities that are growing and helping others to grow organic produce in UK. Says the seventh grader, “It is best to eat what you grow. This way you are ready to face any difficult situation.”