Austin McCoy was just 14 years old when he began making an impression on the science world. While still in middle school, he developed an innovative and low-cost disease-detection tool alongside Mayo Clinic biochemist and molecular biologist Chris Pierret, Ph.D.
In the years since, that "stripped down, portable and much cheaper version of a standard lab-issue thermocycler" has taken Austin great places and given him great things. Like top honors in a national science and engineering fair in Washington, D.C., a formal internship at Mayo Clinic, an invitation from Dr. Pierret to join him and others from Mayo Clinic on a trip to New Delhi, India, and his own TEDx talk, during which Austin breaks down his device's journey "from idea, to workbench, to kitchen counter prototype."
It was a journey that took root when Austin's middle school partnered with Integrated Science Education Outreach, or InSciEd Out, the science education program founded in 2009 by Mayo Clinic, Winona State University-Rochester, and Rochester Public Schools. Austin and Dr. Pierret met soon after, and the rest, as Austin wrote on his website at the time, is history. "He became my mentor and allowed me to come into his lab at Mayo Clinic, where he taught me how to extract DNA and how to analyze it using electrophoresis." (Funny, that sounds exactly like what we were doing in middle school.)
Since then, the hits have kept coming for young Austin. His most recent achievement, reported by KTTC-TV, was taking home a 2018 Coca-Cola Scholar award. He received the award for his work with his disease-detecting thermocycler and for the nonprofit cybersecurity companies he's created. While he was in high school. (And we were watching "The Big Bang Theory.")
"As the only Minnesota student selected from roughly 180,000 applicants," KTTC reports that Austin was given a $20,000 college scholarship as part of being named a 2018 Coca-Cola Scholar. They just asked one thing in return: He had to first name one educator who had inspired him so Coca-Cola could give said educator its Joseph B. Whitehead Educators of Distinction Award.
Any guesses who Austin picked? His initials are Dr. Chris Pierret. "Not only did he touch me as an individual, giving me so many different opportunities and just taking me in and matching my curiosity with opportunities that I can pursue. But, I think it's just overall he always pursues stuff in life with passion and he tries to help as many people as possible," Austin tells KTTC of his mentor. Yet Austin says the biggest lesson he's learned from Dr. Pierret is humility. "With science, you can talk in a language that's inaccessible to everyone, so treating everyone as equal to you and with humility" is essential, he says.
For his part, Dr. Pierret tells KTTC that being recognized in this way means a great deal given their innovative history together. "To know that he recognizes me as an educator in his life, to know that he recognizes me as part of that journey, is really touching," Dr. Pierret tells the station.
With high school now in his rearview, Austin will take his considerable talents to the California Institute of Technology this fall, KTTC reports, "where he will pursue a degree in mechanical engineering or computer science."
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