|Irene Phungoh, 16, of Kenya talks about the importance of clean water with Richard Ernst, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1991, at the BioVision Life Sciences Forum in Lyon, France.|
By Thomas Nybo
LYON, France, 12 March 2007 – It's not every day that a group of children receives help on their science projects from Nobel Prize-winning scientists, especially when most of those children live in developing countries. But that's exactly what happened yesterday, the opening day of the BioVision Life Sciences Forum here, when a select group of 10 youth leaders hosted a breakfast for three Nobel Laureates.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I think this is one of the unforgettable days of our lives," said Olam Qurbonali, 14, of Tajikistan, "because today we received answers from the most experienced scientists in the world."
The other nine children attending the BioVision Forum – as well as a parallel UNICEF-sponsored children’s forum – are from Burkina Faso, China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Lao PDR, Morocco, the Occupied Palestinian Territory and the Philippines.
Seated among the children were Richard Ernst and Kurt Wuthrich, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1991 and 2002, respectively, and John Sulston, who won for medicine in 1992. UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Kul Gautam and BioVision Chair Philippe Desmarescaux were also on hand.
Getting answers from laureates
Mr. Ernst began by offering advice to the young leaders. “The first thing that we can try to do,” he said, “is to inspire you and to tell you about our own life – of how we happened to experience science and life in general – and to tell you also for us it was not always simple. And that we had to overcome hurdles in our lives."
In their home countries, the children are working on projects to protect their peers from sexual abuse, prevent malaria and clean up water supplies, to name just a few. They wasted no time in asking specific questions of the laureates.
Irene Phungoh, 16, lives in Kenya. Her trip to the BioVision Forum is the first time she has ever left her village, and she is most concerned about the quality of the water that so many African children drink. "Is it possible to apply genetics to help improve the quality of water?" she asked.
Mr. Sulston was quick to point out that the solution wasn’t scientific but social. "It might be possible to develop novel micro-organisms or plants that are especially good at removing contaminants," he said. "But the solution, most importantly, has to do with social organization, so that you actually treat the water supply, and of course engineering to collect and distribute without loss."
The ensuing discussion veered from HIV/AIDS to overpopulation to global warming. Each child had a chance to ask questions.
Every two years, the BioVision Forum brings together a wide range of scientists, members of the media and leaders of society and industry to address vital life-science issues facing the world in the areas of health, agriculture and the environment. This year’s forum is dedicated to the contribution of science to progress on the Millennium Development Goals.
Maia Azores, 14, of the Philippines wanted to know how UNICEF might help the children stay in contact with each other and with any scientists they meet at the forum.
"We would hope that when you go back, that every three or four months you will send us a small report on what is happening with your project, what kind of progress is being made, and how we can be more helpful to you," said Mr. Gautam, who pointed out that UNICEF has an office in each of the countries the children represent.