Why you should care
Because why should we wait to recognize genius until later in life?
Applications for the second round of OZY Genius Awards are now open. We’re awarding 10 brilliant undergraduate students $10,000 to make their passion project a reality. You could be one of them. To apply, fill out a brief questionnaire and upload a short video or image describing your project by January 20. Stay tuned for the OZY Awards Ceremony, sponsored by JPMorgan Chase & Co. See below for the last round’s winners.
It was winter in New York City, 1956, and a young woman was demoralized. She’d been chipping away at her novel for seven years and nothing was coming together. To make any real progress, she’d have to quit her day job, but then who would pay the rent? Then came the gift from a pair of friends: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”
Just over a year later, Harper Lee had finished her manuscript and found a publisher — and within a few more years, To Kill a Mockingbird had swept the country and won a Pulitzer Prize.
In terms of helping talent flourish, benefactors — Lee’s friends, the MacArthur Fellows Program, artist residencies, business incubators — can make all the difference, and we had them all in mind when we created the OZY Genius Awards. Clearly there was a thirst. Applications poured in by the hundreds, pitching novels, films, apps, businesses and much else. Submissions were subject to public voting, and then appraised by a panel of judges that included Laurene Powell Jobs, founder of Emerson Collective, and David Drummond, chief legal officer and senior vice president of corporate development at Google.
Today we’re pleased to announce the first crop of OZY young geniuses. They include a South Dakota native who’s going to use the grant to continue experimenting with 3-D printed prosthetics (he’s already printed one myoelectric arm for a 3-year-old), a DREAMer who’s making a documentary about her first trip to Kenya, a social entrepreneur who’s creating a platform to help get food to where it is needed, and many more. With the winners’ spring studies complete and a check of up to $10,000 waiting to burn a hole in their pockets, it’s time for these young minds to think big. And stay tuned: OZY and its partners will be profiling some of their results this fall.
Sylvester Amponsah: Type II Superconductors
Sylvester Amponsah was born in Ghana, lived in Italy for a couple of years and now studies electrical engineering in Ohio, at Case Western Reserve University. But one thing stays the same: “Everywhere I travel, the concepts of math never change. The scientific method as a process never changes. I like the consistency of science,” the 21-year-old says.
Superconductors haven’t changed much either, but at the end of a lecture last year, one of his professors casually mentioned that no one had found a way to superconduct at room temperature. Gauntlet thrown down! With this award and the help of several classmates who jointly applied, Amponsah says he will study the properties of superconductors at extremely cold temperatures to better understand how the effects could be achieved at room temperature. The right alloy could provide cleaner energy and better MRI scans — and could even open up the possibility of hovering trains.
Cooper Bierscheid: 3-D Printed Prosthetic Arm
Growing up in South Dakota, Cooper Bierscheid liked to take things apart — and then put them back together in unlikely configurations. He recalls a time when there were some computer parts lying around (because he’d unassembled a computer), which he rearranged inside a briefcase. “It was like a secret agent type of computer,” he says, with the excitement of little boy and self-effacing tone of a 20-something.
Considering Bierscheid’s propensity for invention, it wasn’t surprising when last year he set out to find an easier, cheaper way of making prosthetic limbs, which currently cost anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000. Through their recently formed nonprofit, called ProtoSthetics, Bierscheid and his team will use their Genius Award to experiment with and market 3-D printed limbs. They have already printed one myoelectric arm for a 3-year-old, which can be reprinted in any scale as the child grows. The cost? Less than $400.
Christine Chen: DiverseCity
One of Christine Chen’s friends dreamed of, and worked hard toward, going to med school. But she faced difficulties that her Stanford classmates didn’t: No one in her family had gone to college before, for instance, and she didn’t know any doctors who looked like her or had a similar background. Chen, who also wants to go to medical school and doesn’t have any doctors in her family, could relate. “There have been times when I’m having a bad day that I Googled ‘successful person story of hardship,’” she says. “It makes what I’m going through not as much of an anomaly.”
But now Chen thinks she’s figured out a way to make it easier to find mentors to relate to. The 20-year-old’s big idea is to create an online platform called DiverseCity, which would share the stories of underrepresented, inspirational leaders with a global audience. DiverseCity will aim to empower students to see themselves as future thought leaders — or, you know, geniuses.
Michael DeVore: Live Chair Barbershop App
Michael DeVore doesn’t think he’s a genius. More like a visionary (the 22-year-old keeps a journal with a list of all his ideas). “Every time I can get someone to listen to me, I’m pitching a new idea,” DeVore says. His latest vision? A world where broke college kids never again have to go to a job interview with a mop of unruly hair.
This particular scheme came to DeVore when a classmate at Claflin University, in Orangeburg, South Carolina, was complaining about how he couldn’t afford to get a haircut. DeVore thought about all the other students who probably had the same problem. Then he thought about all the barbers he’d visited who didn’t have websites, efficient appointment booking systems or a marketing presence. Enter Live Chair, an app that aims to connect barbers and students. Among other conveniences, the app will provide discounts for college students and a platform for companies to connect with new customers. “Teachers always tell us, ‘You want to go work for someone,’” DeVore says. “But I’ve always been a rebel. I want to do something different.” Learn more at Live Chair.
Danielle Feerst: AutismSees
When Danielle Feerst began researching autism for a community health class, she was perplexed to learn of the dearth of apps on the market that provide real-time communication feedback — after all, one of the worst “pain points” for autistic people is knowing whether they’re communicating effectively, says Feerst. But the rising Tufts senior was even more surprised to watch an idea she had take root and ultimately grow into a full-fledged startup business.
With her grant, the founder of AutismSees will continue to develop her app and website, which provide users with analytics on how well they communicate with others, as well as a social-skill-building curriculum and employment training. The 21-year-old says her favorite part of the whole thing isn’t technology. “Working with the people I have has totally made me the person I am and helped me figure out where my strengths and weaknesses lie,” she says. Learn more at iPresentWell.com.
Jason Heo: Farepath
During his senior year of high school, Jason Heo became transfixed by the famine in the Horn of Africa. “There wasn’t a week that went by that I wasn’t seeing the images of the devastation,” he recalls. Now 21 and a student at Swarthmore College, Heo has come up with a way to help alleviate hunger here in the states. “It’s a Band-Aid solution, but it’s utilizing a lot of resources that might be going to waste,” says Heo. “The ultimate goal is a policy solution.”
For the past several years, he’s been building a platform called Farepath, which uses technology to spread an organized, door-to-door food donation and collection system across American communities. After successfully testing his model in Philadelphia, Heo is going to use his award to design iOS and Android apps, build partnerships and, he hopes, go national. It’s a project that hits home for Heo, whose own parents immigrated from South Korea with nothing and were able to build a life for their family with the support of others. “I’ve always been aware that I owe a lot to others, and this is one small way to pay it back,” he says.
Daniel Shinun Kang: Chain Sequencing — Ending Poverty in South Korea
After living in Canada with his parents for 12 years, Daniel Shinun Kang recently visited his home country of South Korea and hasn’t been able to shake off the economic hardship he witnessed while there. “My own grandmother is living in extreme poverty,” says Shinun Kang, 20. She’s not the only one either.
With the nation’s public pension funds depleting, nearly 50 percent of the elderly population in South Korea is suffering from poverty. Shinun Kang plans to return to South Korea this summer to research the structural problems in the country’s pension system, publish a paper and ignite a grassroots dialogue about reform.
Naomi Kiarie: A DREAMer Abroad
In 1998, 5-year-old Naomi Kiarie and her father went to Europe to get visas in order to come to America to reunite with her mother and sister. Her father was denied. She was not. Living in the U.S., her visa expired, and she grew up undocumented. “We’re in this ‘in between,’” she says. “We’re not really American, but then I don’t even know Swahili, my native language.”
But Kiarie, 21, is a DREAMer, an immigrant who meets the criteria of the proposed DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alient Minors) Act — meaning she can enjoy some of the benefits of citizenship cadit quaestio, and can return to her home country, Kenya, to see the rest of her distant family. And she wants to document her experience. “We’ve been afraid to talk about our status. But it’s important to have something from our perspective,” she says. While in Nairobi this summer, she plans to volunteer to work with women living with HIV/AIDS. She will use her award to make a documentary about her first trip back to Africa and show the world who DREAMers are and what they’re striving for.
Takondwa Semphere: The Ekari Book Series
When Priscilla Takondwa Semphere was 11, her English teacher gave the class the assignment of writing a story, and the Malawi student wrote about two cheerleaders, one blond and the other brunette. “I’d never seen a cheerleader in my life, but I was so used to reading stories about places very far from mine and people who didn’t look like me,” says Takondwa Semphere, a lifelong bookworm.
She wants to change the narrative for other young African readers by writing children’s books that they can see themselves in. The series will follow the journeys of 8-year-old Ekari, a little girl traveling across the African continent. Each volume will feature one country that Ekari visits, where she experiences its culture through food, stories and music. Ekari’s adventures will be a lens through which African cultures, realities and existence can be creatively celebrated.
Kalina Silverman: Big Talk
Like a lot of freshmen, Kalina Silverman felt terribly alone when she left home for the first time to go to college across the country. “There was a lot of small talk going on, but it was hard to connect to people,” the 20-year-old says. She found out months later that many of her classmates felt the same way. “We were all struggling but none of us talked about it.”
First Silverman started a mixed-race student coalition, but then she started thinking about other ways of bringing people together. She wanted to show how, despite their differences, everyone has things in common. To do that, Silverman has constructed a social experiment of sorts called Big Talk. And she started with a video in which she asked strangers what they wanted to do before they die. This summer she is going to expand the experiment with more YouTube videos, a video submission platform, dinners with strangers and more. Down the line, Silverman even sees Big Talk as a tool to be used in conflict resolution. “In the end, it’s all about human connection — learning to be who you are and not being afraid,” she says.