VANCOUVER – It was just a routine walk among wild cranberry bushes in northwest British Columbia, but the results of the trek are taking 16-year-old Kiri Daust all the way to an international science fair in Taiwan.
The mostly home-schooled teen, who has yet to begin biology 11, will compete at the prestigious event in January, thanks to his curiosity over a type of rust he found on highbush cranberries during a stroll near his home in Telkwa, B.C.
Daust’s invitation to the science fair is just the latest in a series of honours, including his publication in a scientific journal and a silver medal at a national science fair.
For fun — not that science isn’t fun for Daust — he also plays violin with the symphony in Prince George, B.C.
“Science is available to everyone,” said Daust who spent the first eight years of his life living in a cabin, “off the grid,” without television or even a computer.
“I think the main thing is you have to be passionate about science, and you have to just be curious about the world around you, and I think if you have that then you will fairly naturally do well in science.”
Daust said he came across the rust, which appeared as “purplish dark spots” on the berries, and is known formally as Puccinia linkii, during a walk in August 2012, so he snapped some photos and had the spots identified.
He built a science-fair project around the topic, competing regionally and nationally, and during those events several judges suggested he try to get the work published, he said.
His work on the subject was published in the July-September 2013 edition of the “The Canadian Field-Naturalist.”
He found highbush cranberry plants that were located in sites with higher levels of infection produced berries with significantly less sugar, and dead-leaf tissue was more prevalent in infected plants.
“This study provides evidence that Puccinia linkii may stress plants, leading to reduced quality and quantity of berries, especially if the severity of the infection increases with the increasingly moist springs that are projected for the region,” states the abstract to the paper.
The findings are important, said Daust, because wintering birds and small mammals feed on the berries, as do local First Nations. Even his own family members use them for making jelly.
“If this rust does increase, it seems quite likely that the food value of the berries will decrease,” he said.
Daust said he’ll present the topic at the 2014 Taiwan International Science Fair.
Patti Leigh, executive director of the Science Fair Foundation of BC, said Daust will be one of two students and an educator who’ll represent the province in Taiwan.
“It’s a very big deal,” she said of the event.
To be selected, students must have been on the B.C. science-fair team and represented the province at Canada’s national science fair for at least two years, said Leigh.
Daust won a silver medal at the Canada-Wide Science Fair 2013 in Lethbridge, Alta., earning a silver medal for his work on the topic.
He said he has been taking part in science fairs since Grade 3 and has competed nationally for the last four years.
Kevin Zakresky, music director of the Prince George Symphony Orchestra, said he had heard “flashes” about Daust’s interest in science, but had to talk to other people to find out more information because the teen doesn’t talk a lot about himself.
“He’s such a modest fellow,” said Zakresky.
Zakresky said the mostly-adult symphony plays once every three or four weeks, and Daust is part of a core of teenage members and plays in the symphony’s first violin section.
Daust also placed second in a competition for young musicians interested in playing a concerto, which is a composition for a solo instrument, said Zakresky.
The director said Daust travels from Smithers to Prince George to play, a distance of about 370 kilometres.
“Coming from Smithers, it’s really quite astounding,” he said.
But it was that secluded upbringing that turned Daust to science.
He and his family only moved to Telkwa from the remote cabin when he was eight because school and music lessons were just too far away.
“I think that’s what got me interested in science and nature in the first place because I didn’t have a computer or television or anything, actually I still don’t have television, and so I think I used nature as entertainment.”
Home schooled until Grade 10 by a mother who has a PhD and a father with a master’s degree, Daust said he now takes a couple courses at a local high school, one of which is musical theatre.
Next term he’ll take Biology 11, Physics 12 and English 12, said Daust, adding he has also passed his Grade 10 violin exam with the Royal Conservatory of Music.
Daust said he loves chemistry and physics and would love to have a career in either specialty but will take a gap year after graduation, get some work experience and then decide what to do.
“I will always be doing both science and music, it’s just sort of still not quite sure which one’s going to be made into a career and which one’s going to be more of a hobby,” he said.