Making it big in science

Scientific progress thrives on the curiosity of researchers. Many young talented people are also achieving astonishing things – for example within the scope of scientific competitions.

Ivo Zell is standing on a hill in the idyllic Rheingau region of western Germany, looking into the distance. In his hands he’s holding a black box with an antenna. Nothing happens. However, within a few seconds it becomes increasingly clear what the young man is concentrating on: A small dot on the horizon is coming closer and getting bigger. But what is it? Zell smiles meekly and says ambiguously, “Perhaps the future.” The object that the 18-year-old is making glide through the air by means of a remote control is not a typical model airplane, but a flying wing. This is a fixed-wing aircraft without a fuselage or a tail section. Ivo Zell has been working intensively on this “tailless” airplane for months. He combs through the specialist literature, develops his own model with a 1.20-meter span and launches countless test flights. His hard work pays off: In April 2016, Zell wins the Physics category of the “Jugend forscht” (Young Researchers) competition in the German federal state of Hesse, which Merck has been hosting since 1996 (see article).

One wing is enough

Why is Zell convinced that one wing is enough? “In comparison with conventional aircraft, flying wings have optimized aerodynamics and thus use considerably less fuel,” he explains. That sounds logical. But these special airplanes also have some disadvantages: They are hard to control and can start to spin easily. This is precisely where the challenge lies. “The aim of my project was to build a flying wing that does not need electronic stabilization,” says Zell. The bell-shaped lift distribution developed by the Horten brothers in the 1930s forms the basis of his extensive calculations. He then brings his data to life in his father’s carpenter’s workshop using CAD tools and 3D printing – the model airplane is ready for takeoff. He is now starting a test and evaluation phase by means of telemetry, video analysis, his own sensors, and measuring procedures. With great success. With his model, Ivo Zell has managed to establish unproblematic flight characteristics – an interesting discovery for the international aeronautics industry. In addition to the “Jugend forscht” competition in Hesse, he also won the German national competition and reached second place at EU level. Now Zell is looking forward to participating in Intel ISEF, the world’s largest pre-college science competition, being held in May 2017 in Los Angeles, California. Despite this spectacular, lofty challenge, he remains grounded: “I plan to study mechanical engineering so that later I can work as an aerospace researcher.”

As light as a feather

By contrast, Patricia Asemann is reaching astronomical heights – albeit only in theory. Together with her project partner Robin Heinemann, she is developing a computer simulation with which they will investigate the influence of gravity on the evolution of planetary systems. But how does one come up with this unearthly idea? “I can spend hours solving complex mathematical problems – I really enjoy it!” Fascinated by outer space, which is still largely unexplored, she is currently working on her topic for “Jugend forscht” with the Head of the Student Research Center in Kassel, Germany. “Molecules form dust disks and pieces of rock, which in turn become huge mountains. But the question of what effect gravity has on this process has not yet been answered,” explains Asemann in simple terms. First she delved deeply into the world of specialist literature and contacted scientists around the globe who were researching similar topics. “They were delighted by the interest I showed and were happy to help me,” recalls the 18-year-old. With the information she had gathered in her mind, she sits down at her computer. Her complex simulations consider various parameters such as homogeneity, density, number and velocity of the objects. The main finding of her research is that gravity only plays a role when larger fragments have already formed. In the initial phase, however, factors such as electromagnetism and fluid mechanics are decisive. With this contribution, the two young researchers impress the jury in the category of Geo and Space Sciences and win first prize in both the state-wide competition in Hesse and the national competition. Today, Patricia Asemann studies mathematics and physics in Jena, devoting her free time to new areas of research: For example, the development of an invisibility cloak that bends sound waves around an object. However, there is one question that the talented young scientist cannot answer: “I have no idea why there are so few women in the subjects I study.”

Highly reactive

Elias Chalwatzis from Bensheim, Germany, comes across an explosive question of an entirely different nature during a chemistry lesson. If you put an alkali metal into water, it causes a vigorous reaction in which hydrogen is generated. “It can give off a really loud bang,” says the 19-year-old. Today, scientists are still not in agreement on the chemistry behind it. Some explain the detonation as being caused by an oxyhydrogen reaction. Others put it down to a physical explosion in which the water suddenly vaporizes due to the high degree of heat. Recent research points to the repulsion between the resulting metal ions as the cause of the explosion. It’s a topic that Elias Chalwatzis and his fellow pupils Christian Brudy and Daniel Crusius can’t stop thinking about – they want to learn more about the reaction mechanism. “First we did some research on the Internet and talked to ‘real’ scientists such as a professor of chemistry in Prague,” says Chalwatzis. Then the pupils started their experiments in the school laboratory – under supervision, as such experiments can be dangerous. They analyze the reactions of alkali metals with water and other reagents using high-speed recordings and conductivity measurements. Their results support the current thesis known as the Coulomb explosion. The three young men win the Hesse state competition in the Chemistry category and the special prize for Work Safety in the national competition. Chalwatzis is now studying chemistry in Darmstadt, where Merck’s headquarters are located. “Working there one day would be an interesting prospect,” he says, smiling.

Around 4,500
of our employees have provided exciting insights into the world of science in classrooms and at Merck sites in 36 countries.
More than 60,000
pupils put on lab coats and had fun conducting experiments.

Innovation through curiosity

Merck promotes aspiring scientific talent through a variety of programs

As a global science and technology company, Merck is involved in a wide range of activities in the education sector. “Promoting young scientists is very important to us. Our commitment to education is a key element of our Corporate Responsibility strategy,” says Frank Gotthardt, Head of Public Affairs and Corporate Responsibility. In 2016 alone, Merck invested € 3.2 million in educational projects. The company’s activities also include awarding international scholarships – for example in India and China, or awards for excellent students in Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya. For more than 30 years, Merck has been a partner of “Jugend forscht”, Germany’s largest and most successful young scientist competition. Since 1996, the company has been staging the state competition in Hesse and has hosted the national finals twice. Pupils, apprentices and students between the ages of 15 and 21 are called upon to develop creative projects. The participants can choose the topics themselves, but the project must fit into one of seven categories. These are: the world of work, chemistry, biology, geo and space sciences, mathematics / information technology, physics, and technology. “We are repeatedly impressed by the high level of the projects that are submitted,” says Julian Wenzel from Community Relations at Merck.

Merck widely promotes STEM subjects, namely science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Continuous support of schools is having an impact: around 80% of the “Jugend forscht” projects from the state of Hesse that make it to the Hesse state competition are from schools sponsored by Merck. “In addition to this specific sponsorship, it is important to us to promote general scientific education and to show that chemistry is exciting and fun,” explains Christa Jansen, Associate Director of School Sponsorships. With its various offers as an extracurricular place of learning, Merck helps young people in their choice of studies and careers. Through advanced teacher training, innovative technologies such as liquid crystals and OLEDs have even been incorporated into school lessons. In cooperation with the Technical University of Darmstadt, Merck runs a junior chemistry and biology laboratory for pupils. This laboratory has ultramodern equipment that permits entirely new experiments. Internationally, this recipe for success will now be implemented in selected countries.

In addition, Merck is engaged in numerous educational initiatives worldwide to awaken young people’s interest in science. This includes the SPARK program that was launched in early 2016. It motivates employees across the Life Science business sector to volunteer to share their scientific knowledge with students at schools in 192 cities around the world. To date, around 4,500 employees have provided exciting insights into the world of science in classrooms and at Merck sites in 36 countries. More than 60,000 pupils have put on lab coats and had fun conducting hands-on experiments. Through SPARK, Merck collaborates with schools and non-profit organizations, for example the Swiss Science Center Technorama in Winterthur, to teach students about and spark their interest in science. In addition, Merck has launched Curiosity Labs where pupils have the opportunity to conduct experiments on processes such as water filtration or DNA extraction that are part and parcel of daily scientific practice.