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The President's comments aside, if the big screen is more your game than the Super Bowl, and if you go starry-eyed over the red-carpet, then you might have been watching last week as Natalie Portman (making style lists for her purple dress, as well) took home the golden statue for her lead role in Black Swan, a thriller with an obsessed ballerina, and a production of the classic Swan Lake, at its dark heart.

You may not have seen Black Swan (rated R), but you probably know Portman's name... or maybe you know her better as Queen Amidala from the new Star Wars trilogy. Amazingly, she was still a high school student when she took on the role of Amidala in Star Wars: Episode I, which hit the screen in 1997. Star Wars, however, was not her first big screen role. Moving from stage to film, she made her movies debut at age 13, and by the age of 14 was working on a string of movies: Heat, Beautiful Girls, Everyone Says I Love You, and Mars Attacks! Since then, her list of credits includes at least a movie a year over the last ten years.

Well-Rounded Success

While her Hollywood success is amazing (she's only 29), there's a lot more to Portman than a worth-the-price-of-popcorn-and-admission screen presence.

Following her Oscar win, an article appeared in New York Times Science spotlighting Portman's decidedly and impressively academic and science-minded side. As a straight-A high school student, she was a semifinalist in the Intel Science Talent Search, a prestigious, and highly competitive, national science competition.

At the time, Portman was interested in alternative energy sources, specifically the process of transforming waste products into hydrogen or ethanol fuels. At the heart of her research were simple methods for demonstrating that the reactions being studied were producing hydrogen, which could be used as an alternative fuel source. In a paper she published on her work titled, "A Simple Method To Demonstrate the Enzymatic Production of Hydrogen from Sugar," she puts forth a familiar call to action: there is a need for "bioprocesses whereby biomass and the biodegradable content of municipal wastes can be converted to useful forms of energy" that can replace fossil fuels like oil. In the paper, she demonstrates that "common sugar glucose can be used to produce hydrogen using two enzymes, glucose dehydrogenase and hydrogenase." She also advocates that this kind of research can and should be explored in high school labs—that it is easy enough and uses readily accessible materials, making it a good way to emphasize environmental and biotechnology issues and areas of study, and helping give students a hands-on introduction to enzyme-catalyzed reactions.

A Lead Role

Students who are interested in environmental issues and the processes involved in producing biofuels might try and replicate Portman's study. Or, students can investigate alternative energy production in one of these Science Buddies projects:

A Big Screen Look at the Intel STS

The Whiz Kids documentary about the Intel STS will be shown on PBS in April!

(Science Buddies projects in the area of biotechnology are sponsored by Bio-Rad and its Biotechnology Explorer program.)


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Free science fair projects.