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By Fred Dickey

Jan. 21, 2013

For the first time in my life, I was tempted to address a 14-year-old as “sir.” Well, that’s an exaggeration, but Nilay Shah of Mira Mesa is one serious kid with the earnest manner of a mature scientist, which he seems to have a jump-start on becoming.

Nilay conducted an experiment last school year as an eighth-grade science fair project on the dreadful impact of plastics on the oceans. It won him the Young Scientist of the Year award from the San Diego Oceans Foundation, as well as second place in the area-wide science fair. He also won high praise for the content and maturity of his presentation to the rangers and docents of Torrey Pines State Reserve, a knowledgeable group on environmental issues.

This is how he introduced his experiment: “A wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) soars over the calm ocean waves, oblivious to the danger lurking beneath. After many miles, she spots [what appears to be] a squid, dives down, snaps it up and begins the long journey back to her nest — little knowing that the ‘food’ she carries back will lead to the death of her chick. This scene is one of many that take place due to the 20 billion pounds of plastic deposited in our oceans annually, resulting in the death of over 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine animals every year.”

Nilay says several huge masses of plastics are present in the oceans, the biggest being the mid-ocean Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which, according to the United Nations, is twice the size of Texas. Plastics are not only all over the oceans, but many are in microscopic fragments.

“So, it came to my mind to ask if biodegradable plastics would be a solution,” Nilay says. In his experiment, he attempted to demonstrate that plastics derived from cornstarch, called polylactic acid (PLA), would be a significant improvement over a common petroleum-based plastic, polypropylene (PP).

By comparing the two materials, he sought to show that PLA would make a plastic that would degrade into the environment at a greatly accelerated pace compared with PP, thus helping alleviate the plastics-clogged oceans. In addition to forming a seemingly eternal and mushrooming ugly mass in the oceans, PP releases toxins into the environment that are destructive to marine life, and PLA does not, Nilay says.

For his experiment, he separately took material samples of PLA and PP and immersed them in large seawater vats for eight weeks in a reduced light environment. He found that the average PLA sample degraded over the eight weeks by 0.81 percent, while the average PP sample degraded by 0.15 percent. He extrapolated that corn starch-derivative plastic would fully degrade in far fewer years in the ocean than petroleum-based plastic.

Shane Parnell, a polymer engineer for Carlsbad’s Callaway Golf Co., says Nilay’s experiment was quite advanced for a boy his age. Parnell also says biodegradable plastic materials such as PLA are on the front burner of industry research. The biggest challenge is to improve practical application, especially strength, and cost relative to petroleum-based plastic materials. He adds that once into mass production, the cost would inevitably come down.

Now a freshman at San Diego’s Scripps Ranch High School, Nilay is a “throwback” youth. With adults, he converses as precisely and maturely as he can. But as he says, on the soccer field with other kids, he reverts to being 14. He talks to adults outside his family one way and to kids another — the way that used to be taught.

Until recent years, kids were told the value of getting adults to take them seriously. The idea was to address grown-ups as maturely as you could. Kids used to be instructed to sit and listen as adults conversed, with the goal of absorbing both wisdom and nonsense, and then try to sort it all out. If a kid jumped into the middle of the room, he or she was promptly invited to leave it.

Nilay practices Hinduism and is a vegetarian. He says his values are to be happy and satisfied with life, and always to show kindness and be empathetic to others.

I ask about long-term ambition, and his answer could be from a business school graduate: “I’m undecided, because now as a freshman, many opportunities have opened up that were not available to me as a middle-school student. So I’m exploring different fields.”

He has jumped at the chance to participate in “brainy” clubs that get involved in puzzlers such as the formation of the universe, a group that models the United Nations, and something called Science Olympiad that could leave one tired just thinking about it.

Nilay has the matter-of-factness of a boy without guile who has not learned the deceptive art of false modesty. I ask, “What is your hardest class?”

He seems stumped at the question, then says: “My classes this year are pretty easy.”

“And last year?” I ask.

“Last year was pretty easy, too.”

I pursue. “What are you afraid of?”

A long pause. “Not much.”

“Everyone’s afraid of something.”

“Spiders, I guess.”

“That’s called arachnophobia,” I tell him.

“I’m not that afraid of them.”

Nilay, of course, is not the only high school kid who is actually planning to be a successful adult some day. Good parents be praised, there are lots of them. However, he is a young member of a new breed of Californian, of American. He is one of the new faces in our midst. Just look around …

One would have to wander through San Diego wearing blinders to not notice the proliferation of educated and successful immigrant and first-generation Asians occupying our labs, boardrooms and classrooms.

Dinesh D’Souza of Rancho Santa Fe, a writer and political activist who is himself an Indian immigrant, attributes their success to hard work, willingness to defer compensation, emphasis on education and ease of assimilating into American culture. They frequently have the advantage of coming to this country already conversant in English.

We often assume that the parents of a highly achieving child are high achievers themselves, perhaps a distinguished scientist or a dot-com mogul. However, Nilay’s parents, Mahesh and Baavna, are average middle-classers and immigrants from the Indian state of Gujarat who arrived two decades ago. He’s a retired U.S. Navy noncom now serving as a teacher’s assistant, and she works in school food service.

Both make it clear that the success of their son, an only child, is a primary goal of life.

I can guarantee if San Diego student test scores are in the outhouse, it won’t be the fault of Nilay Shah. And I can further guarantee he’ll not be sleeping on his parents’ couch at age 26.

If this column sounds like a valentine to a teenage kid … well, yeah, that’s a fair conclusion. I just wish we could give valentines to a lot more kids. A big red heart would nicely adorn every young person’s report card.

Nilay says he’s not intent on finding girlfriends right now, but he doesn’t have to be in a hurry. If he maintains his current rate of achievement, in about 10 years they’ll find him.

Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at

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