Why you should care

One girl’s boundless creativity could help solve world hunger. 

One balmy summer day, the Firesters went on a road trip, their three kids in tow. Their eldest, 6-year-old Kalia, chattered away in back, spinning a story for her brothers. In the front the adults spoke of adult things.

But when they turned around to look at the children, Kalia’s parents saw that she’d been busier than they had thought. The minivan was filled with flocks of palm-sized birds, created from toilet paper. Kalia had spent the past few hours twisting them into shape; an empty cardboard roll sat beside her. “She doesn’t stop,” says her mother, an attorney. “She’ll find a way to create.”

This profile is the third in an OZY series on young geniuses. Think you have what it takes? Apply for an OZY Genius Award here.

And it’s true. Since that summer road trip, the 17-year-old whiz kid has strung together one accomplishment after another. Her latest: a second-place win at the Intel Science Talent Search, the United States’ most prestigious science fair, for her work on eco-friendly alternatives to toxic pesticides. Also? Firester is a talented artist with a certificate from Parsons School of Design and a budding playwright too. With an enviable ability to turn nervous energy into creating things, Firester is undoubtedly responsible for her success. But she knows she might not have had so much of it: “I’m lucky,” she says.

Firester musters a self-conscious smile when we meet in the marble-columned lobby of the St. Regis Hotel in Washington, D.C. In her tousled ponytail and high school wardrobe — fleece pullover, faded Chuck Taylors — she’s unassuming. She speaks in a deadpan that wavers now and then, her doe eyes occasionally fluttering as she fidgets with the Velcro on her sleeve.

Firester does not much keep still in normal life, either. After school, she analyzes and writes up research data, or heads to art class or to a playwriting workshop. (Her latest play was inspired by a New York Times article about a physics professor caught smuggling cocaine by a cop posing as a bikini model.) She comes home to an Upper East Side apartment cluttered with art and science projects. In the foyer, a vast network of pumps funnels water over a bucket of clay to measure erosion. In an alcove-turned-greenhouse, a sink holds plants and aquariums.

She extracted compounds from hemlock needles, garlic cloves and green chilies, spraying them onto 200 moth larvae.

Amid the hubbub, Firester unwinds — by throwing herself into her art. (Her mother once found her at 3 a.m., passed out with her foot dipped in a bucket of paint.) Inspiration comes from unlikely places, like comic books and science fiction. Her gold-medal entry for the 2014 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, for instance, was a comic book about a robot shuttled to Venus. The lonely robot sends travel posters to Earth.

Her idea for a natural pesticide came from a passage in Jurassic Park that describes how plants can communicate using chemicals. Firester wondered whether she could use plant chemicals as pesticides. So in the seventh grade, she extracted compounds from hemlock needles, garlic cloves and green chilies, spraying them onto 200 moth larvae — kept in her bedroom. She let the survivors metamorphose and flit around as moths, and earned a Young Naturalists Award in 2011 for the project.

So much of what Firester does is self-directed. But her school, Hunter College High School, has played an undeniable role in giving Firester and her peers outlets for their curiosity, flashes of insight and playfulness. It encourages kids to start independent research as early as seventh grade, maintaining databases of mentors and labs for the purpose. It even sponsored a trip to the Intel competition — which is why, among the onlookers there, one could see an army of ponytailed, braces-wearing Hunter College girls wending their way through the labyrinth of project posters, notebooks at the ready.

Firester doesn’t gloss over her privilege. “I’ve been exposed to a rich scientific curriculum, and I’ve had mentors who have really passed it forward,” she says. She hadn’t reached ninth grade when she began interning at Israel’s Volcani Center, where she researched genetically modifying plants with natural immunity to nematodes, worms that destroy about $100 billion in crops every year. For her Intel project, she investigated how a protein that nematodes secrete makes tomato plants more susceptible to infection. Engineering tomato plants that can silence the protein boosts their resistance.

But silencing the protein doesn’t completely suppress nematode infection, notes Eric Davis, a professor of plant pathology at North Carolina State University, and that’s a concern given that making a genetically modified crop is very expensive. Still, Jennifer Bath, an associate professor of biology at Concordia College, is “very impressed” with Firester’s work and techniques. Her research could even reveal drug targets for nematode infections in humans.

We weren’t surprised when Firester won a $75,000 second-place prize in the Global Good category at Intel. (This year marks the first that Intel has granted awards in three categories, rather than one.) But even after hearing her name announced for the second-place medal on the illuminated, blue-curtained stage, the cogs in Firester’s mind kept turning. “Don’t trip. Remember the order of shaking hands. … Pose for the picture,” she remembers telling herself. “I was kind of in shock.”

Illustrations by Kalia Firester.

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