Natalie Portman coauthored this science paper

2001 Discover Mag Awards, Penn and Teller, Antonio Mora, David Hartman, Robin Roberts, Marvin Minsky

Back story: I used to run the Discover Magazine Awards for Technological Innovation, once Disney Publishing’s largest signature event (Disney owned Discover Mag then). The coolest emerging technologies were showcased in the magazine, on a TV show hosted by Penn and Teller, and at the live event at Epcot featuring presenters such as Robin Roberts, Dean Kamen, Todd Rundgren, Thomas Dolby, Jack Hanna, Story Musgrave, and many others.

One technology was a portable ultrasound to which, as a pregnant gal, I became addicted. While at one of the events, I asked a scientist if I was causing my unborn baby harm by obsessively performing ultrasounds on my belly to watch my baby move around, and he replied, “probably not but I’m sure you’re annoying the hell out of that baby. Don’t be surprised if it’s born with its hands clutched over its ears.” Thanks, Marvin Minsky.

We used to partner with the National Science Foundation and the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation to bestow similar awards to middle school students developing technologies to benefit their communities. The Columbus Foundation also gave an annual award of $100,000 to one of the adult Discover Award winners.

One of these $100,000 award winners, Dr. Jonathan Woodward from Oak Ridge National Lab, happened to have coauthored a paper with a high school student from NY and entered it in the Intel Science Talent Search. So, we invited this high school student to co-present an award at the Discover Mag Awards at Epcot.

Drumroll: as the title of this blog post suggests, that student was Natalie Portman (then known as Natalie Hershlag).

Ironically, the next year, we invited Christian Bale to present an award. He accepted and was terrific; although, as I recall, it was his father who had the greater interest in science.

For your reading pleasure, I present the title, abstract, and link to the now famous paper. Go Natalie!

As reported in Chemical & Engineering News:

The article, “A Simple Method To Demonstrate the Enzymatic Production of Hydrogen from Sugar,” was the result of an independent-study project carried out by Portman during her sophomore year at Syosset High. Intended to illustrate “environmentally friendly biotechnology for the utilization of renewable energy sources,” the work earned Portman a semifinalist position that year in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search, an annual competition organized by the Society for Science & the Public.

The laboratory instructions Portman helped develop aim to teach high schoolers and undergraduates the principles of enzyme-catalyzed reactions by instructing them how to break down cellulose with a combination of cellulase, glucose dehydrogenase, and hydrogenase. The amount of hydrogen evolved in the process is indicated by a simple redox dye, benzyl viologen.

Read the article:
A Simple Method To Demonstrate the Enzymatic Production of Hydrogen from Sugar
J. Chem. Educ., 1998, 75 (10), p 1270
DOI: 10.1021/ed075p1270
Publication Date (Web): October 1, 1998

Abstract:
There is current interest in and concern for the development of environmentally friendly bioprocesses whereby biomass and the biodegradable content of municipal wastes can be converted to useful forms of energy. For example, cellulose, a glucose polymer that is the principal component of biomass and paper waste, can be enzymatically degraded to glucose, which can subsequently be converted by fermentation or further enzymatic reaction to fuels such as ethanol or hydrogen. These products represent alternative energy sources to fossil fuels such as oil. Demonstration of the relevant reactions in high-school and undergraduate college laboratories would have value not only in illustrating environmentally friendly biotechnology for the utilization of renewable energy sources, such as cellulosic wastes, but could also be used to teach the principles of enzyme-catalyzed reactions. In the experimental protocol described here, it has been demonstrated that the common sugar glucose can be used to produce hydrogen using two enzymes, glucose dehydrogenase and hydrogenase. No sophisticated or expensive hydrogen detection equipment is required-only a redox dye, benzyl viologen, which turns purple when it is reduced. The color can be detected by a simple colorimeter. Furthermore, it is shown that the renewable resource cellulose, in its soluble derivative from carboxymethylcellulose, as well as aspen-wood waste, is also a source of hydrogen if the enzyme cellulase is included in the reaction mixture.