Top of the Class

#16 Winning the Google Science Fair and Protecting the Environment

December 04, 2020 Crimson Education Season 1 Episode 16
Top of the Class
#16 Winning the Google Science Fair and Protecting the Environment
Show Notes Transcript

Fionn Ferreira's enthusiasm for chemistry and innovation is only matched by his passion for helping the environment.

When you put these two qualities together along with the chance to win a t-shirt and a Chromebook, you get the beginnings of Fionn's journey to winning the 2019 Google Science Fair.

Since then, he has attended the World Economic Forum, featured in ads for HP, spoken on global stages, had a minor planet named after him and is now working with engineers to scale his innovation.

In this chat, Fionn gives his thoughts on why science in its truest sense is a mindset rather than chemical formulas, how to find a science fair to suit your strengths and what every amateur scientist should have lying around the house.

**Download the Ultimate Resource Bank for Science Students with the favourite resources from Fionn and other young scientists featured on the Top of the Class**

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Host's Notes:
Chatting with Fionn, it's clear that science for him is not formulas and exams, but fun, experimentation and learning. You also get a sense that at the heart of what he does is a deep desire to inspire and educate others. I'm sure this episode will bring a smile to your face and hopefully get you thinking differently about what science is and what it could be.

Podcast Host  00:00

Hi Fionn, welcome to the Top of the Class. It's fantastic to have you on. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?

Fionn  00:47

Yeah, so my name is Fionn. I grew up in Ireland, and half German, half Portuguese, and living in Netherlands. So some people describe me as European, which I also describe myself as at the moment. But essentially, what I really love doing is building things and inventing things. And I've invented lots of things, most of which have not worked, but some of which have worked. And think what I'm mainly known for is known for removing microplastics for water. I also study chemistry, and play the trumpet and like gardening on my balcony as well. 

Podcast Host  01:20

Gardening on your balcony? 

Fionn  01:21

Yeah, totally. 

Podcast Host  01:22

What do you grow? 

Fionn  01:23

I really like edible things. So anything from like edible flowers to Herbes lettuce somewhere, it's like cucumbers. Yeah. So science project.

Podcast Host  01:33

Yeah, yeah. Well, everything seems to be like a bit of a science project for you, right? Like everything seems to be an opportunity to learn and grow. Talk about the Google Science Fair for us, because that's something that you won in 2019. And I know that's going to be of significant interest for a lot of our listeners. Can you tell me a little bit about what that competition actually is?

Fionn  01:53

Yeah, so the Google Science Fair is a science fair. So essentially, a competition where people can enter science projects. And yeah, not only get judged and win prizes, but also get connected to a lot of like minded people who do science projects. And really, what makes this very unique over other fairs like Intel, isef and other challenges is that this fair really is looking at more the quirkiness of the science more to fund the process that you undergo, and really looking at you and how you like to invent and your passion rather than the complexity of the project. And what they also really, really focus on as well is how you communicate the project. So therefore, I feel like it's a slightly different science fair, in the sense that it might be a little bit less strict. You know, we those design friend suits and ties, we can be there in hoodies. And because of that, it's a little more fun. And yeah, it gets people who are not only scientists, but also communicators to get involved.

Podcast Host  02:53

Yeah, that's a such an important part about science is the communication that you can have great science. But if you aren't able to communicate it effectively, then kind of falls flat. How did you get involved in the Google Science Fair?


Yeah, well, first, I have to give you some background on westcourt. Oh, yes. Yeah. So West Cork is quite remote in Ireland, maybe about three hours south of Cork. And I mean, well, West south, kind of, and essentially three hours into the middle of nowhere from Cork City. So you know, if you drive three hours into the middle of nowhere, you're really in the middle of nowhere when you arrive there. And just to give you a little bit of scale, the nearest town to my house, which was 10 kilometers away, and had about 2000 people living in it, not particularly big, but I thought that was really nice. We're close to the seaside. And I really felt that that area really fostered my ideas. But to get back to the Google Science Fair, what really inspired me to enter was just that I saw this YouTube ad online. And it was kind of saying, Yeah, well, you can enter the science fair online, you submit your idea, and you can win a T shirt. So I thought, Oh, I can get a T shirt. That's nice. So I approached my parents, and I was like, I want to enter the science fair, I saw you win a T shirt. And if you're really good, you can win a Chromebook. Do you allow me to enter? They were like, okay, so at the time, I was working on this microplastic removal project. And it was kind of a side project. It was something I was trying out and working on. And just playing with in my bedroom. With a couple of beakers, I think, essentially, to enter the science fair, Google Science Fair, you fill out this online form, which is like a report about your project. So you talk about the methodology is essentially all the steps. So I submitted that, and I heard nothing from them for like six months. And I thought, well, they've probably ignored me or whatever. And then I got an email, like, after six months out of the blue saying, oh, you're you're a global finalist. And you're coming to Google headquarters. So yeah, and they sent me a T shirt. Oh, that's Chromebook as well. So yes, I've got my T shirt and Chromebook. And then I went to my parents. I was like, yeah, I'm going to Google headquarters. One of you guys has to come with me. And we're going in three weeks time. And so it's all happening pretty quick. Yeah. After the big long way. It was very, very quick. Yeah. And then what they did, they brought together the finalists, we got to present our project in a format where they gave us like, stands where they designed visuals for us. And we really got to present it to a celebrity judging panel. So people we all looked up to, like editor in chief of Scientific American, National Geographic people from Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson, lots of really amazing innovators and inventors. And they then judged us, and all of them had different rubrics.

Podcast Host  05:47

Okay. All right. All right, let's wind back a little bit. Because there's a lot of cool stories in that. You've talked to your parents who say, Hey, we're going to Google you're coming. This is a non negotiable, pretty much because like, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, right? What was that journey to Google headquarters? Like? I've never been, what's it like in there? 

Fionn  06:06

Yeah, so Google is kind of interesting. It's like an ecosystem itself. So we like arrive to this hotel on campus. And then we were cycling around and little colored bikes, and we were playing volleyball. And we had like, a week. And it was really, really nice. It was just that it really felt like a campus that embodies the spirit that I actually find is so important. And that's the spirit of play incorporated with work. And, you know, I, if you've ever watched the movie, the interns, it's really so similar that like, the whole of Google is full of slides that you can like, take a slide down from one floor to the next, or the cism, a jogging path while you're working on your laptop, or take a day off or have a nap inside when the Fed nap pods. It's really crazy. And you name it, it's there. It's always changing. And it's just this brightly colored campus that's almost like a big playground for adults. And you wonder how to get any work done there at all. But uh, yeah, it's incredible. 

Podcast Host  07:07

But it makes it a place that people want to be at, right? It doesn't feel like you're at a workplace, it feels like you're on a vacation almost.

Fionn  07:14

Yeah. And actually, what was very funny was, the food was really, really good there. And they had these like kitchens, micro kitchens, or bigger kitchens, they could just go to help yourself. And anything like sweet or unhealthy is hidden. It's hidden in a different spot every day. So it was always a big task to try and find the like chocolate, it would be hidden somewhere in the office. And there's some of these job who's just hiding the chocolate in different placesevery day. 

Podcast Host  07:38

You find the chocolate that day. You're the hero of the day.

Fionn  07:41

Yeah. Well, you're not allowed to tell anybody else where it is.

Podcast Host  07:43

Oh, really?

Fionn  07:44

Yeah, strict rules. 

Podcast Host  07:45

My gosh, my gosh, well, it sounds like an amazing place. Google headquarters must have a very, very cool to be at. But can you explain a little bit more about how you turned your like project that you were doing in your room, right in a couple of bakers into a science fair, ready type of project? You know, you said you had to work on displaying it and communicating it? Was this kind of the first time that you were doing that in terms of like, okay, I've been playing around with some chemicals and microplastics in my bedroom. Now I need to try and impress people like Richard Branson with it. What's that process like?

Fionn  08:22

Yes, I've never, I never had done it on such a big scale before. But I did enter the National Science Fair and Ireland, were actually won the category twice in the years before then. But those were different projects. And one of them was like, a machine to test for antioxidant levels in any food sample, which which I built using a bit of Lego,

Podcast Host  08:42

a thing that a young man should be doing, because we always get told eat it. It's got antioxidants in it, you're like, Okay, I'll just take your word for it. Right? I don't even know what these antioxidants are really,


the thing I learned was that so many things are not true. Like, you know, you can get the same amount of antioxidants, which you get from an orange, you know, vitamin C's, and you can get in about like six leaves of parsley. So, you know, I thought that was really interesting. Or an espresso was actually incredibly high in antioxidants, like something like 14,000 oranges worth something like that.

Podcast Host  09:15

Well, I must be packed with vitamin say that I must be doing very, very well, because I do enjoy


It's not vitamin C. It's it's beta carotene. But that's another podcast.

Podcast Host  09:24

yeah, yeah. No, it sounds pretty good. But so you've done a couple science fairs before so you kind of knew what that were looking for. But it was I guess, the process of turning this particular project into a Google Science Fair ready one and one that would, as you say, kind of fit with the nature and what Google Science Fair was looking for.


Yeah, and I think what's really important there in that stepping up process and it for me, I always felt very daunted by this process because you look at your like little things. They're like, how am I going to present my like, you know, mixing things that kind of look like they work and and really What I found something that was really, that always worked for me was just to test. If I see a project, and I've tried to add on the small scale, I think first is really to test the thing a lot. And something that always impresses judges is when you have done a very large amount of testing and using different variables. And that's what I did. So I tested my thing like 5000 times, I decided that was enough.

Podcast Host  10:23

Wow, 5000 times.


Yeah, I did build a robot to do it for me. Yeah, I am a lazy person, I decided to build a robot instead. So I tested a lot. And then I had tons of data. And with data, you can all of a sudden talk a lot. So I looked at data and looked at trends, and look to see if my ideas had worked or not. And even if they don't work, you've still done an investigation, you still need to work in showing your scientific capability. And I think you can actually still win science fairs, even if your technology doesn't work. So then you arrive at this process where you've got all this data. And then it looks really overwhelming. You've got this type of an Excel spreadsheet where you've got like, gone to roll like triple Zed or something. Yeah, then you then you're going to have like five days of like really severe headaches. What I'd actually recommend is taking a couple of espressos and squeezing in some lemon juice that helps with me, right. I know, it sounds disgusting. It is disgusting. But it helps for me, it's a good tip. But there's another thing that you can do. And that is much more effective. And that's actually cleaning up that spreadsheet. Yeah, well, you have to look at is the trends in your data. I can't tell you how to do that, because it's different for everybody. And then I guarantee that after all of that, one will find these trends, which you're excited to talk about. And I think, really, if you've gone to the trouble of doing a couple of thousand tests, you've probably kind of liked this topic. And I think there, it's then just about putting your own voice on paper, what you think about your findings, and really to bring across your enthusiasm. And I, I think that's what really got me into the fair was just that I always brought across my enthusiasm, how I enjoyed what I did, and how I learned and what I learned while doing it as well.

Podcast Host  12:10

And I think people would have appreciated the fact that you created a robot to do the testing for you.


Yeah, so so I do like that. And, for instance, something that I did in a lot of science projects, which people always like to say I always did. Surveys as well, where I looked at with people. So sending out to this case, plastic companies and asking them what they do with their micro plastic waste. Do they have contaminated water, things like that? Yeah. And I really like to do like a multifaceted approach. And as much as possible.

Podcast Host  12:39

I think that sounds fantastic. And it sounds like a really interesting approach to science fairs. One thing I'm interested in is can you give us a layman's term explanation of your project, and a more advanced explanation of your project? So I how do you dumb this down for, say, a podcast host who doesn't really know too much about market plastic extraction and what exactly you did? And then perhaps like a, you know, the type of explanation that you'd give to someone who does no chemical science and those kinds of things?


Yeah, well, the process is simple for both explanations, the first explanation, the layman's explanation. And essentially what I've done is created a liquid. This liquid is made from vegetable oil. So like cooking oil, yes, and rust powder. And together, it makes this gunky, black looking liquid. But when I add it to water, it can attract microplastics out of the water, it sticks to the liquid. And because we've got rust in the liquid, you might remember iron is magnetic. If we ring magnets close to the liquid, we can simply just lift the plastics mixed with the liquid, and using a magnet from water. So like that we can use magnets to move microplastics from water. 

Podcast Host  13:55

Right. So the vegetable oil kind of collects the microplastics, but it's mixed in with the rust powder. So the rust powder kind of coats the microplastics is that's what's happening?

Fionn  14:06

Yeah, absolutely. So the rust powder is like mixing the vegetable oil. And you kind of have to imagine a bit like a glue that can attract microplastics. And then it kind of binds them together and makes them magnetic, you've got this type of lump that you can then remove using a magnet.

Podcast Host  14:20

And what kind of scale can you do that on?


So I tested it first on a very small scale, like milliliters, and it worked really well. So I had like 87% extraction in overall after my a couple of thousand tests. But then I tried on bigger scales like a liter and more. And really, it worked as long as the water has time to come in contact with the plastics and my liquid. So it's all about agitation and and how much you mix it together. So that's why it really is quite applicable to larger scales. And in my next summary, my advanced summary, essentially the method works because in chemistry, we've got polarities, yeah, this is Fairly fundamental concept, but you can have molecules that are polar or nonpolar. So a polar molecule is one that has a formal charge, or has an uneven distribution of positively and negatively charged things. And polar things really like to be together with polar things. And water possibly is the most polar thing we have. Because it has like its V shape. It's got like a super negative oxygen on one side, and then two hydrogens like sticking out the other side. And because we've got a lone pair, so like two electrons sitting on, on one side, it's a V shape, it's not a straight line. And that means that it's on equal, you've got a positive side negative side, and they do what's called hydrogen bonding. And yeah, it gets really exciting. I get excited by that. But I won't give a chemistry lesson now, I promise. But essentially, what it does is, it's super polar. And things like plastics are nonpolar. They're just carbon and hydrogen. And they really don't have those charges, attributions, and they tend to reside with nonpolar things. And oil is super nonpolar. That's why it doesn't mix with water normally. And that's why if we add oil, something nonpolar, and those nonpolar plastics will migrate to the oil phase, they'll get stuck in the oil phase, because they're just much more stable. They're then in the water phase, which is polar.

Podcast Host  16:27

Does it work the same in seawater as it does in normal water?


In seawater, we have the added benefit of having a salt in there. Yeah, and there's salt is even more polar than water, because we've got these two like something that's positive split from something that's negative, like sodium chloride, and seawater, and a plus CL minus, but super polar, which means that it works better in seawater, and I've actually had higher results in seawater.

Podcast Host  16:53

Oh, that's awesome. So it could be something that we could take out to the ocean, potentially, and extract microplastics on mass, is that something that you see the potential of the project being like, taking it out into the Pacific was that was that thing in the Pacific? Where it's like that massive track? Yeah, the Pacific


Garbage Garbage Patch? Yeah, I think, I think that microplastics I'm talking about things we can barely see here, those plastics in the sea are really difficult to extract. And I feel that the place where the intimacy is for wastewater, so whether it's from us washing our clothes, and plastics falling off to the tires of our car is slowly turning into Titus. And that ends up in the wastewater. And I really feel that before we can start cleaning up to see where it's in a dilute concentration, we can look at wastewater treatment centres where we've got a large influx of plastic coming all the time. And that means that immediately there we could have a bigger benefit. And I also feel like that you wouldn't be impacting wildlife, I still feel like it would be more difficult and we would have a lower impact in general removing plastics if we were to do on the sea. And that's why I'm focusing on wastewater treatment turns me

Podcast Host  18:04

Okay, okay. So you don't want to impact negatively wildlife and it's probably more practical to be at the wastewater because as you said yet, we're dealing with very, very small plastic so for people who don't know, micro plastics or things like I know that a very common one is face wash, where it has like microbeads in the face wash or it's like a you know, microdermabrasion type of thing and they're rubbing their face with these little tiny plastic beads, which I know a lot of the companies are now trying to take out because there's still products with the men and then there's like the little threads of your clothes that might come off in the washing machine and as you said tire dust. I never even thought about that right like so when when it rains you know the the road is probably packed with this tire dust. Is that right?


Yeah, absolutely. And so tires is is one of the really, really big so I think over 40% of all the microplastics are actually coming from Titus 40 percents. Yes, if we look at when you drive your car, you release tires quite often and you can see the level going down. Yes, and if you've got millions of cars driving around, that's an awful lot of dust from these tires. I think also a really major one is actually paint so all our paint is a polymer plastic. And either if you wash away paint with water or if it's like it's peeled off a house, or for instance them the paint on the bottom of boats, and all of that can have a huge release of plastics as well.

Podcast Host  19:31

Crazy I've never even thought about that. I've How did you get involved in all this? Can you just kind of take us through your personal journey from West Cork, getting interested in the environment and then becoming like a micro plastics extraction expert.


Well, I wouldn't quite call myself an expert. I playing with science. Yeah. But what I really love doing as I said earlier, is building things and for me, I never set out at the beginning To build something that would change, hopefully the way we can interact and live in our world. However, what I really like doing was just little contraptions that were fun to build and would give cool results. So, as I said, earlier, I did other projects where for instance, I built a contraption where I was looking at antioxidant levels in in foods. But when I was walking along the seashore that was just so close to where I lived, which I would walk along every day, I would always see increasing levels of plastic washing. And the more I read about this, the more worrying it was because I heard about that, yeah, under influence of sunlight, and bashing and stones on the seashore that can break into small bits of plastic, which we can't see but are eaten by fish and eaten by us and not very nice. So that got me thinking. And I really wanted to find out how much there was in the sea water around where I lived. So I said I'd building a machine to find out how much there was. And what I built was this thing called a spectrometer, essentially, it shines light through a sample, that is layman's summary, Chinese light sample, and, and it analyzes the light that comes back and tells me if there's plastic in the south or not, because essentially, anything of a different color absorbs light in a different way, the slightly more advanced suddenly, is essentially that we've got a it shines light, and it's like a UV vis spectrometer trying to UV light on the sample. Because plastics often have large conjugated systems of double bonds, electrons in those double bonds can be promoted to higher energy levels. And that means that it absorbs a bit of light energy. And that is carried characteristic wavelength for the plastic. And then we can use a local debris Lambert law to determine the concentration of plastic in water, which I did.

Podcast Host  21:54

I'll take your word for it, but I'm sure some of our listeners know what you're talking about. But for me, I really got lost there. I prefer the layman's one. But continue. I love this.


Yeah. So essentially, what this went on to was just the fact that I had this machine, okay, in the building process, our house almost burnt down. And the electricity for my whole town got turned off because I made a short circuit. And there were a couple of minor setbacks. Just my nose. Yeah, just very minor. But essentially, that resulted in that I had this machine to test microplastics. And I found microplastics in the water. So I thought, well, I've got this machine. Great. What can I build next? Because I was like building things. Yes. And it's actually the saddest part of my process is when I'm done, or when I feel like, you know, it's kind of done, because I like the process rather than the finished product. So then it comes to the level where, essentially, I wanted to do more, and I looked at ways I could remove plastics for water. And it turned out there weren't really any. And that's what I thought, well, the worst thing that can happen if I try out is that it doesn't work. And people will laugh at me. But people are laughing at me all the time anyway, so it doesn't really matter.

Podcast Host  23:05

Especially when you're short circuiting the city. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. 

Fionn  23:09

Well, remember, it's only 2000 people, so I wouldn't really call it a city. Yeah. Okay. 

Podcast Host  23:13

Well, still, I'm sure yeah, people were like, geez, that fear and kid is pretty crazy doing all these awesome experiments in his room. But yeah, I wish he didn't short circuit the town.


Yeah. And also, this happened in the middle of like, one of those television shows that everybody watches now was in everybody's particularly good book. But, but really what happened then was I thought, well, I can try things out. I tried like filtering it through sand. And that didn't really work and it made a mess. And then I at the same time, so this YouTube video, actually by Diana cow, a corn or physics girl. And she was playing with this liquid called ferrofluid magnetic liquid. And I kind of thought it looked cool. Like if you it's a magnetic liquid, that's already cool enough. And I thought, well, I could try making some so I found this really old research paper from like 1860s online where they were extracting metal from stone and then being a toil which I followed reversely I didn't realize that actually, I could just buy the magnetite powder for rust powder online from eBay, but that was already after spending a month kind of hacking stones apart. Yeah, and then I played with this and I added it to water samples and saw that plastics migrated and that's what sparked the whole process of then trying out a bigger sale trying trying to add in different plastics, I added to water looking at the type of plastics it likes to take up how much it takes up, how can be improved and this is so many variables that I looked at them.

Podcast Host  24:48

When you are trying to create something new like a spectrometer or like FIFA fluid, as you said and hacking about rocks which is interesting. What is your go to resource is it your own Brian, and you're like, how would I do this? How should I solve this? What can I do? Or do you go to YouTube? or Google? Or what's your go to initial resource or research phase you go through usually?


Yeah. So what I find really difficult actually, as an amateur scientist, and I think as a creative science, maybe he doesn't have access to Labs is that whenever you Google how to test for microplastics, they're going to get some research paper from some sort of like, academic institution where they have machines that costs like an arm and a leg and a bit more, and stuff that you don't understand. And it's so difficult to get that if you go into E, or YouTube, you're probably going to get like some really old Professor talking about something, some like math, the thing with some machine that you can't get, that was really difficult. So my actually go to resources, looking at very old academic papers, when, essentially back to the times where they didn't have the modern equipment that they have nowadays.

Podcast Host  25:59

Right, right. And wouldn't have plastics, though, would they?


Know, but they did have spectrometers? Okay. Okay. So you know, it's a bit of a combination, I read a lot of papers would watch videos to figure out the science. And then I would just, yeah, a browser and Google, it's quite ironic that I got the Google Science Fair, I would browse around Google look at, let's say, spectroscopy, how it works. And then I thought, well, you know, they use a laser, I can just try, you know, normal light bulb. And like that I can, I just tried things out and learn from my mistakes. And I think what's really wonderful about that process is, is that you're almost following the footsteps of some of the great scientists who discovered these things. You start with such a crew, let's say with a spectrometer, and very quickly, and you can create a spectrometer like my one, which creates comparable results to one that you'd get in a lab.

Podcast Host  26:50

And you're finding these old reports and research papers in a library or online? Or where are you going to find these, like, 1860 science report?


Yeah, so Google Scholar was really, really good, right. And Google Scholar is a really great resource for that type of thing. But often, you know, you kind of lose the will to live halfway through reading one of those things. And I also felt that often, it was interesting to look at other DIY scientists and, and, and reaching out, but also to professors at universities and reaching out to them, because often they have understanding. So actually, what I really like doing is, is coming up for ideas for people who want to investigate things. So maybe if there's a listener out there, if they're really wondering about how to investigate or, or build something, well, perhaps if you reach out, I might be able to, to help a little bit, or at least come up with some ideas.

Podcast Host  27:44

Yeah, so you're like a, an ideation kind of guy, you've got the ideas. And then you are also not just the ideation guy, you'd love to build things as well. So you like the perfect combination? For a lot of scientists, you like to come up with an idea you like to build in your life to test you're like the ultimate amateur scientist, right?


I guess. But, um, I think that combination also is completely up to the scientist. And I know some people who just think, and you know, they'll have different projects. So it's really up to you and what you like, that's what I think these projects are so much fun, because you can exclude the bit that you don't like, except, okay, very old fashioned fairs. So I'm naming, for instance, the Intel International Science and Engineering fair, Intel isef, which I actually entered and got some awards in a different here, but I just found that was very old fashioned. So it felt very much like I was writing a PhD, although I haven't written a PhD, I can just imagine that it would feel like that. That's right, you know, a very long dissertation and very serious academic notes. And for me, that was a bit too strict, and, frankly, a little bit boring. And I just feel that, um, I like to focus on what I enjoy.

Podcast Host  28:56

That's a really interesting concept about finding if you are a scientist, and you do want to enter into science competitions, I think a lot of people are attracted to Intel, because it is, you know, quite a big name. I know it's regeneron science fair now. And they've got another sponsor, but it's about finding the competition that suits you and the type of science that you like to do and the type of presentations that you see yourself giving, right, like it's isef might not be for everybody, even though as you said, you did enter and win awards in your category. But it's like comparing the two, if you were to compete in just one sounds like Google would be more your fit, right?


Yeah, totally. And like I've competed in several different ones. And I really found Google was my fit. It was fun. And we really celebrated together. They brought the 20 finalists together. We had a week where we were all doing fun icebreaker activities, and it wasn't like, whatever. It's regeneron now, but it was very strict and very competitive. No, this was we really became friends. And I think something that we have to look at is it's not about the award. sees face, it's really about connecting with other people, because I can't stress enough that the biggest resource of all is being able to talk to other people or like minded like you and talk about your concepts freely, and together, be able to benefit each other's ideas and come up with ideas. And that togetherness is really what makes it fun. Yeah,

Podcast Host  30:21

I'm sure. And so you've probably got a lot of good friends from that experience, right? Like from all around the world who are doing cool projects, and you kept in touch.


Yeah, exactly. And we, for instance, particularly the Google Science Fair group, we would have regular calls where we sometimes Yeah, talk about what we're up to. And we try and chip in on each other's projects and come up with different ideas, to try and help each other. And that's a really, really nice thing to be involved in.

Podcast Host  30:46

That's awesome. That's awesome. Now I know a lot of people who are listening to this would probably think fion sounds like a genius. He sounds like a guy who can have an idea. And within a week or Well, you know, even within a couple of days, he's got like a working model in his room. Does that title sit well with you? If people do think Oh, God, Fionn, you're a genius!

Fionn  31:08

I know.

Podcast Host  31:09

I gotta tell you a quick story. Actually, just yesterday, I was I was catching up with a friend of mine. And she's like, oh, how's the podcasting going? I'm like, Oh, that's great. I'm really excited to chat with this guy Fionn tomorrow. And she's like, oh, what, what is going on, dude? Like, what's the story? Then I read a bit about your bio. And I'm like, oh, he speaks three languages. He's got a planet named after him. He's in her. He's created this microplastics thing. That one, the Google Science Fair. And she's like, Oh, my God, He sounds like a genius. And I'm like, I'm like, Yeah, right. So it's like that, you know, I guess that's why we do the podcast, right? where it's like, what is the story behind these headline achievements that often get attached to someone like yourself, right? And people see those bullet point achievements and unattainable. This guy's like, on another level type of thing? And how, I guess Do you dispel that, that title, if it doesn't sit well with you?

Fionn  31:59

But that's actually a really good question. And actually, first I'd like to add here for your listeners is that if any of them have questions, reach out to me, because I'm not overloaded with questions. The main platform I would use for engaging is Instagram. So but yeah, I'm really happy to answer questions. And actually, anybody who has questions, or if you think, you know, young scientists reach out to them, because chances are, they're not as busy as you think they are. And I always remember that, you know, there is a time when I watch Netflix as well. And I could just be looking at your emails in that time, as well. So it's always a bit of time in life. But to get back to the question, well, I feel like what I talk about in a lot of keynotes and things I get is really that we all I have, on average, the same brain size, and the same activity going on in there. And we all just use it for different things. And I really feel that genius is a bit of a weird phrase. Because I personally find that all I've done is done what I've enjoyed, and still do what I enjoy. And I just happen to be somebody who's managed to talk about it, and that some reporters, I still don't know why have decided to pick up on them and tell other people about. So I really feel like what I still have is a very simple project. Yeah, currently, I actually this week just started working with engineers on scaling it. But it's still a simple project, in essence, and anybody could have come up with it. It was not an overnight thing. I can't stress this enough. This is like months, if not years of kind of trying things out and annoying my neighbors, although the the nearest neighbors to our houses about a kilometer away, and years of trying stuff out, a lot of things did not work. And during that time, nobody ever called me a genius, except my parents. So I think one should never be disheartened by not being called a genius. But I think the word genius shouldn't be used. Because we're all geniuses at what we like doing this.

Podcast Host  33:56

I like that I will go forth into the day feeling a bit more positive about my brain power.

Fionn  34:01

One question I have for you in terms of the people who are around you, parents been one right? You know, they say you're the average of the five people you spend the most time with, who are those people for you? So for me, I lived I'm an only child. So I live with my two parents, and then I would have a lot of contact with my grandparents. And that was kind of it. So those I'd say are the five my parents and grandparents were really the biggest number of people I would have contact with because essentially, it was really difficult to like hang out with people of my own age because I lived in the middle of nowhere and it just made it complicated on that sense, which I never missed. Maybe because I'm an only child I just like you know in my bedroom sticking wires together and seeing your things will explode. And and and yeah, maybe the neighbors see like a mushroom cloud, although that hasn't happened yet.

Podcast Host  34:51

No, that hasn't happened yet. touchwood it doesn't.


Yeah, let's hope but I really am fans that I was spending a lot of time with them and They would just I would be enthusiastic about things and they will also become enthusiastic about them and read about microplastics or look at ways that they can be more sustainable. And that kind of boosted what I was doing. My dad was a woodworker, and he still is he builds boats. So whenever I needed like something made out of wood, I would go to him and like, tell them exactly what I needed. And then we build it together. My mother is a model maker. And she makes smaller models that paper. So there I could like do the micro scale building stuff, which was also really fun.

Podcast Host  35:31

You're a family of builders?


Yeah, in essence, and actually, my grandparents are. My grandmother is an architect and my grandfather, also architect and builder, so completely building. And yeah, it came from their schooling, I found really difficult because actually, for me, first of all, I didn't really have that many friends, mainly because it was a bit different. I think I want it to be different as well. Yes. I the school actually didn't really support my ideas that much. And I really felt it was difficult to get time to, to work in them. But also, I actually didn't really get on my chemistry teacher so well, mainly because I was always enthusiastic and just wanted to do way more than we have to do. And however, I did get a lot of advice from them. And particularly one teacher helped me on the like dissertation aspect and, and the formalities of it. But I really think that I have to give my credit to my family. In this because I I really felt schools in general, should do more to look at maybe incorporating the extracurricular investigation of projects in their curriculum, or,

Podcast Host  36:34

particularly for science, right? Like it should be an investigation of an application of what you're learning. And a lot of the time it's learning to get a good score on a test, right? 

Fionn  36:45

Absolutely. And I really feel that that's flawed. Because science is all about thinking outside the box, or playing with ideas, and associating them with different things and playing with them, putting them together in different orders and seeing where it takes you. And I really think that studying for a test does not follow that. And it doesn't promote that. And I think science is a mindset. It's not necessarily a big host of chemical names or knowledge that you've learned. But I really feel that that science is a way to think, as a method to think. And I think that that can be applied. If you can have that method, you can figure out the names later. Actually to add, I was really bad at learning stuff off at high school, like learning Spelling's and things like still my spelling is very bad. In fact, at the moment, it's still so bad that spellcheck doesn't recognize that I've spelt it wrong. 

Podcast Host  37:37

Oh, well, Spellchecks the problem, not you.

Fionn  37:38

Oh totally. Blame spellcheck.

Podcast Host  37:41

One thing I'm interested in is what you had in your room, as like an amateur scientist and a builder and a maker and a family of builders and makers. What kind of science equipment did you have in your room? And what do you think other amateur scientists should have is like, their go to build a maker science toolkit type of thing, because you can buy these things at like, you know, a National Geographic store or something. And it might be, you know, like a baker or something like that. But what were your go to tools that you had around the house that helped you to become you know, an amateur scientist and test out all these things?

Fionn  38:15

That's a cool question. Actually, I've never been asked these questions. Actually, I really love this podcaster really researching it well, and it's really fun to speaking. But um, yeah, so what I had in my room would be tools. I love sensors, I love being able to like autonomously send stuff and work with data. So for me, I had a big box of like bits for an Arduino and Raspberry Pi, where I could like, make my own sensors and robots.

Podcast Host  38:41

Can you just go back Arduino and Raspberry Pi?

Fionn  38:45

Yeah, so there are two like mini microcontroller computer things that you can hook up to like any sensor you can imagine. So like, you need the sensor, like for air pressure, humidity, light color, you name it, they've got it. And it's super cheap. Like, I'm talking like three $4 for a sensor. And then what you can do, you can hook them up, and you can, if it's in a titration, looking at the color change. Yeah. And you can plot these doubters. You can import them and play with science. And, and I really find that for me, seeing what I could measure, using the capabilities of technology, widen my horizons on on what was possible. And I think for any good science project, you really need to be good at collecting data. And by using sensors to so useful,

Podcast Host  39:31

I'll put the sensors in there, I'd never even heard of those things. So I'll put those in the show notes. I'll try and find something if you can send me a link to them or something. 

Fionn  39:38

There's so many bits for Arduino. Yeah, I could give you like a list of things that are useful, but it really depends on the project and you can research it. And it's it's really like open source. There's like billions of things you can add to it, and marketing here. That's an open source platform. But what I also then had was a computer is kind of useful. Lot of books and notebooks I can scribble down I really like like a three really big things. Yes, I don't know why I like to have a really big overview. And then like a really big desk. So I got my dad built a desk all the way around my room. And then my bed was really high. And I was always covered in stuff. And yeah, bit of wiring, couple of LEDs. And then it's also really useful is things that you can build boxes out of select cardboard, and, and maybe a cutting knife and a scissors. So that kind of like mechanical building materials are also useful later, Lego, a lot of Lego, I'm a real I have boxes of Lego and Lego so useful because that's a good prototyping material. Yes, we're, I think Macondo is also quite useful in ways as well. And then in addition to all of that, yeah, laboratory glassware is not so important, you know, jam jars do the trick, as well. And, really, I think that it depends on what you're researching. But I think in essence, you will find the materials you will need by a research. And I think somebody to stay away from is you always see these kind of expensive kids with stuff to build with. And I think in almost every circumstance, you can build those pieces of equipment, whether it's a microscope or something on a really, really tight budget, and I think you will learn more, and it'll be more fun for you to do it that way than to just buy already made things.

Podcast Host  41:29

Yeah, it's funny how students will say, Oh, I'm great at chemistry, or they're great at physics, but I say to them often, oh, how would people know that you're great at physics and chemistry is like, blow get great scores. Okay, that's interesting. How is your application of that? And how do you go about turning the scores into the science? Otherwise, it's really just memorization? Right? It's not really science. It's just the memorization of chemical equations. And you know, that kind of mathematical equations in physics? How do you think students should go about turning their knowledge into actual science? If they don't have a desk all the way around their room, for instance?

Fionn  42:12

Well, actually, I don't. Currently, I'm living in my student accommodation. I also don't have a desk all the way around my room. Essential. Okay, good, good, good. Yeah, actually, there came a point when all of a sudden, now I love organizations, I like everything organized, but I still do a lot of invention. So great, it's fun. But I really feel that one has to look at what one is passionate about. And for me, at least, what I'm really passionate about is the environment and the place where I grew up and seeing that destroyed. And I think, in essence, looking at problems and finding solutions is almost always science based. And I think that if you really enjoy science, and if you're good at science, you can apply the concepts that you're learning at the school to those different things. So whether it's in biology, you're learning about the Krebs cycle, and and like Hollis as well, one can immediately look at how intricate that processes and and see the world around you, the environment around you and research it that way and like that learn in a different way. So for me, it's always kind of illustration based learning. So I think really, one has to look at what you are passionate about what you love doing. And I think from that science projects will come naturally to you. If you just do a bit of research and a bit of reading.

Podcast Host  43:27

I think it's always fascinating as well, how students, you were probably what how old? Were you at the time when you started investigating? microplastics do you think 1617 microplastics was 16? round?

Fionn  43:37

But I had other projects before then.

Podcast Host  43:39

Right? So you've been doing projects for a while. I think it's always a barrier for students to get over is that mental switch of I'm a student, I can solve this type of thing. I think a lot of students look at a problem. And I know when I was at school, and still today, sometimes when I'm looking at problems, I say, Oh, well, I'm sure someone else is already working on it. What's the point type of thing? You know, I'm here in my bedroom clinking together beakers and that kind of thing? Am I really going to make a difference? And am I just wasting my time? So how did you approach it where you felt like you could have a solution to the problem? And I know that you were researching microplastics? And you didn't say anything particularly out there? Did you kind of think well, why then Could I have the solution to this problem. And you know, putting it on yourself to come up with a solution.

Fionn  44:27

So I always was daunted by this, that it felt like it was really far to get to like the frontier and to the end of the field, like you need so much knowledge, so many years of study, like it was unattainable. That's not true. That's something I've learned since that, essentially, if you read a couple of papers about something, and if you spend a couple of months researching something, chances are you're going to be in the top of that field really, really quickly, because you're just looking at a very focused niche and you can get to the front very, very quickly of that. So I think we have the expertise and, and the at least the possibility of making an impact and through our innovations. And I really feel that after investigating and after that research phase, you will probably have fresher ideas because you haven't spent half a lifetime researching that, you will have completely new ideas, because you've very quickly got there. And you still have other thoughts in the background, you're not kind of trained to this one way television. So I think that perhaps one actually has an advantage. So don't feel like you are left out because you haven't done all this research. And because I really feel that it's very easy to get to the top of the field very quickly. And that can result in you coming up with very fresh and creative new ideas, and to combat or working on a problem. That's really good advice.

Podcast Host  45:49

I think students should definitely take heed of that. And I always say to students, there is a distinct advantage to being young, you know, when you're contacting professors, people are like, Oh, how impressive like a, you know, 1516 year old kid like investigating this thing, which is usually university or professional level science, or I'll give them my time, right? There's a lot of advantages to being a student. And sometimes it is in just the way you think and approach problems. Where you're not. Yeah, we haven't been trained out of it, so to speak.

Fionn  46:15

Yeah, I am feeling that now, actually, because yesterday was my birthday. Happy birthday, yesterday. Thank you for that, essentially, now I'm like, Oh, I'm 20. Like now I can't call myself a teenager anymore. Now, when I come across some like this young adult, it's kind of depressing,

Podcast Host  46:32

right? Because for the last couple of years, they're like, Oh, this teenager is microplastics

Fionn  46:36

oh well done you little child. And now all of a sudden, it's a different ballgame. So definitely make use of that advantage while you can.

Podcast Host  46:46

Yes, yeah, exactly. And I think some of the students Yeah, just if anyone listening out there is thinking, Oh, I'm just a kid. That's a good thing. Right? Like, that's a that's a commodity, but you need to use, because that doesn't last forever, that's for sure.

Fionn  46:59

Yeah, totally. And I think also that as a kid, you don't need to often worry that you know, how a job and how you need to work on money. And, and for me, really, the whole concept of investigating something felt so much easier, because I had the time, okay, he's going to school, but I, I had the time. And that's great. I still have the time I still study, just my studies are a little more intense. And now I just have the pleasure of being able to work on a lot of parallel projects. And that's really, really fun.

Podcast Host  47:28

Awesome, awesome. Well, yeah. Talk us through about what you're doing. Now. You're in the Netherlands. Why did you choose to go to the Netherlands for uni? Yeah, so

Fionn  47:34

I really looked at unis for chemistry, I like chemistry. And I wanted ones which are very research based, but also pretty good. So when I was looking around this, this was 2016. And I was majoring looking. And actually, a couple of years before a professor from this university at the University of Groningen, in Netherlands where I live, he won the Nobel Prize for chemistry. And his his whole concept is that universities are places for play. And we play with molds. And he's made a molecular machine. And he actually lectures first year is here. And that's really, really great that we just have this research based university, I also really wanted to go abroad, I thought it would be fun to go to a place where I can understand language, okay, I study in English. But you know, when I go to the supermarket, it will take me at the beginning, like an hour to find butter and things like that. Yeah. And that was really fun. And also immerse myself in a different culture, make a different friend group and just get out of my comfort zone. So that was great. What I also then found and worked on was just as I moved here, I went to Google Science Fair. So when I arrived at this university here, university newspaper decided to do like an article about me, and all the like information screens. In the first week here is a picture of me, and all the newspapers everywhere in university, the picture of me, and it was like, I was just making friends. And everybody like I'd be waiting in a lecture. And like everybody, like recognize their face. It was terrible. And actually, more recently, I got to be part of the HP commercial. So yeah, for HP, their commercial that's running in the US and EU. And the other day, we had lecture we've got in person lectures, again, we're showing a YouTube video. And it played this commercial, as like, as the ad for the YouTube video. Oh, terrible. So like, you see, like all the faces in the lecture hall turn towards you. That's hilarious. But then all of a sudden, a huge load of possibilities came out. So like giving keynotes to different audiences about my experiences, being able to go to the World Economic Forum, and in January, were some of the amazing things I did. And now I'm at a stage where I have so many connections from that, that I've been able to stay on my technology. And this week, I'm starting work with engineers who are going to make a product out of my idea. I and we're going to really look at how we can use the idea of To make your filtration device for my classics for water, then in parallel, I'm actually looking at perhaps writing a children's book in the near future, where I go through the process that I go through, but also like, it's a nice aspect where I can just sketch and, you know, play a little bit with it. Yes. And also I would really like to work on is a platform where I can put together some tools that I found for amateur scientists, and hopefully inspire others. But what I would also really like to do is to be able to educate and hopefully tell stories, not just about my research, but explain chemistry and other things. And what makes me so excited about it to other people. Yeah, well, I

Podcast Host  50:43

think that's what helps you win the Google Science Fair, right? It's that enthusiasm, and I can feel it and everything you say, right, I can't believe we've gone like an hour. And we haven't even spoken about the fact you've got a planet named after you.

Fionn  50:58

It's pretty crazy that we've been chatting all this time. And I think students will be very interested in that. So maybe, before I ask you one last question, I would ask you this second last question, which is how do you get a planet named after you? That actually came from Intel, International Science and Engineering fair? Okay, in 2018, where the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, select some projects that they think, have made a considerable contribution to science, and they give minor planets to them, or don't give them to us, but they named them after us. Yeah, minor planet, Fiona Ferreira, and 34497 is its number. And it's in the asteroid belt, just between Mars and Jupiter, actually quite close to Ceres at the moment, and six kilometers wide. And it's just really nice to be embodied there. And let's just hope that my planet doesn't crash into Earth anytime soon. Then in the information manual, they do say that they predict that it won't crash in the next 2000 years. And let's hope I'm gone by then. But hopefully, people will remember me if it does crash into earth. And if humans are still here.

Podcast Host  52:01

Well, that's a lot of ifs. But yeah, let's just hope that it doesn't and stays out there and whatnot. And people can look upon it and be like, Oh, that's Fionn Ferreira, how did that happen? And what did he do, and they can look back and say he was trying to solve a really cool problem. Any other advice you would give to students and our listeners, before we depart?

Fionn  52:19

And for your listeners, I would just really like to emphasize that it's so easy. If you are passionate about something to come up with ideas and to you those ideas will not seem like much at the beginning my one didn't either. But I just tried it out just for the sake of it, just like I did when I was a really young child. And by trying it out, I didn't just box it off, didn't just say didn't work. And that process of trying that made me discover something that I didn't expect. And that's what sciences. So I think never ever box off something. Never, ever take something for granted. Always try that if you possibly can. And I think that that is what embodies the spirit of investigation. And hopefully like that we can get a whole new generation of young people who are coming up with incredible ideas

Podcast Host  53:10

for you. And it's been an absolute pleasure. It's been really great to hear that.

Fionn  53:14

Yeah. And also for me, I always see these kind of things like I see something. And I think well that's kind of cool to work with. That's a kind of a cool tool. I don't know what I'll use it for yet, but I'm going to learn it like whether it be I know Excel because it's kind of cool. And maybe it'll come in useful later. And for me inevitably, all those things have always come in useful later.

Podcast Host  53:36

Thank you so much for your time and it's been awesome chatting, and yeah, wishing you all the best for your time there in the Netherlands. I can't wait to see what you do next.

Fionn  53:43

Thank you very much.

Podcast Host  53:44

Awesome. Thanks, Fionn. Have a great day.