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New Zealand Science Teacher

Science Curriculum/Scientific Literacy

Mushroom power a winner for Tom

Tom Morgan has won the Prime Minister’s Future Scientist Prize for his work with vitamin D and fungi.

Taking a school chemistry experiment to another level has led to a prestigious prize for 18-year-old Thomas (Tom) Morgan.

The Marlborough Boy’s College student was awarded the Prime Minister’s Future Scientist Prize last week for his innovative work growing mushrooms for vitamin D.

Tom grew oyster mushrooms in the dark and then exposed them to ultraviolet light (UV) for varying periods of time before testing their concentration of ergocalciferol or Vitamin D. His results show that there is a strong correlation between length of exposure to UV light and the concentration of Vitamin D in oyster mushrooms.

The work illustrates the potential for others to investigate ways to improve Vitamin D concentrations in food, with the goal of addressing Vitamin D deficiency. A lack of vitamin D is linked to osteoporosis and is a major cause of suffering and disability around the world. Bone health supplements have potential to help many in our ageing population.

Lighting a spark

Tom’s experiments were inspired by his school chemistry classwork. “It all started with a level three chemistry standard where we needed to do a practical investigation into something of our choice. Many students chose to measure vitamin C using a titration. I thought, ‘what about vitamin D?’, and it followed on from there.”

“I didn’t find anything new in regards to vitamin D however I found a new, inexpensive way of testing for it that had not been done before by adding my own original thought to existing research.” His desire to test vitamin D levels in the mushrooms encountered hurdles at the beginning. Sally Withers, Head of Chemistry at Marlborough Boys College, knew the school didn’t have the right equipment to carry out the work. She worked with the school’s science technician to source and make up the special chemicals required. Tom bought a mushroom growing kit from Mitre Ten and set to work.

“I started the tests at school, and that’s where I did most of the trials. But the mushrooms ended up maturing over the holidays, so my parents helped me set up a small lab at home.”

The oyster mushrooms took six weeks to mature, and then Tom tested for the vitamin D levels from the home lab, but not without some important help.

“My Mum helped me out as my assistant. She was passing me chemicals and helping to record the results, which was helpful”, he says.

“I also outsourced help with the spectrophotometer, because we didn’t have one of those at school.”

Tom researched methods of measuring vitamin D in the mushrooms grown with UV light. A spectrophotometer measures either the amount of light reflected from a sample solution or the amount of light that is absorbed by the sample solution.

He also did background reading on the health benefits of vitamin D.

“I learned about the growing worldwide problem with osteoporosis, something that will become more and more of an issue as the number of elderly people increases.”

“I also came to understand that there are not a lot of easily available foods that contain high levels of Vitamin D for people who aren’t getting it through sunlight.”

Mushrooms don’t have vitamin D in them naturally, but once they’re exposed to UV light, their vitamin D content increases. Tom says his process could be used instead of the expensive standard HPLC testing method. Increasing a food’s vitamin D content could be used to treat osteoporosis, and supplement bone health generally.

“I wasn’t even sure I would have a trend, right up until I processed the results, so it was an amazing feeling when I realised I had found a pattern.”

The challenges

Tom’s teacher Sally Withers says he overcame several challenges in completing the science. His resilience was an especially noted characteristic.

“When he first came to me with the idea I said straight away ‘we don’t have the right equipment here’ but Tom went away and found an alternative method of doing the testing,” she says.

“Sourcing better equipment, and finding different ways of doing the experiment was difficult,” says Tom. “Some of our school equipment was really old.”

“Working through the science, and sorting out what did and didn’t work was also a challenge.”

Looking ahead

This year at school Tom is studying chemistry, physics, calculus, statistics, biology and technology (constructional and mechanical technology).

“I’ve always loved science- but you do need some maths for it, so I do that as well. It’s not my absolute favourite, but it’s okay.”

Tom is motivated to continue down the health research path. Next year he plans to study mechanical engineering at the University of Canterbury.

“I’m really interested in the biomedical side of health technology- it feels like there’s such a lot of potential there,” he says.

Read about the winner of the Prime Minister’s Science Prize for Teaching recipient, Fenella Colyer, here.

Read more about the other prize winners here.

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