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B.C. teen headed to Taiwan science fair thanks to walk in the woods

It was 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 about a type of rust he found on highbush cranberries during a stroll near his home in Telkwa, B.C.

Mr. Daust's invitation to the science fair is just the latest of his honours, including publication in a scientific journal and a silver medal at a national science fair.

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He also plays violin with the symphony in Prince George, B.C.

"Science is available to everyone," said Mr. Daust, who lived the first eight years of his life in a cabin, "off the grid," without television or 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."

He said he came across the rust, which appeared as "purplish dark spots" on the berries and is known formally as Puccinia linkii, in August 2012, snapped some photos and had the spots identified.

He built a science-fair project on the topic, competing regionally and nationally, and several judges suggested he try to get the work published, he said.

It was in the July-September, 2013, edition of the "The Canadian Field-Naturalist."

He found that highbush cranberry plants in sites with higher levels of infection produced berries with significantly less sugar, and dead-leaf tissue was more prevalent in infected plants.

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"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, Mr. Daust said, because wintering birds and small mammals eat the berries, as do local First Nations. His family makes jelly with them.

"If this rust does increase, it seems quite likely that the food value of the berries will decrease," he said.

Mr. Daust said he will present the topic at the 2014 Taiwan International Science Fair.

Patti Leigh, executive director of the Science Fair Foundation of BC, said Mr. Daust will be one of two students and an educator to represent the province.

"It's a very big deal," she said of the event.

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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, Ms. Leigh said.

Mr. Daust won a silver medal for his work on the topic at the Canada-Wide Science Fair 2013 in Lethbridge, Alta.

He said he has been taking part in science fairs since Grade 3 and has competed nationally for the past four years.

Kevin Zakresky, music director of the Prince George Symphony Orchestra, said he had heard about Mr. Daust's interest in science, but had to ask other people about it because the teen does not talk a lot about himself.

"He's such a modest fellow," Mr. Zakresky said.

The mostly adult symphony plays once every three or four weeks, and Mr. Daust is part of a core of teenage members and plays in the first violin section.

He also placed second in a competition for young musicians interested in playing a concerto, which is a composition for a solo instrument, Mr. Zakresky said.

The director said Mr. Daust travels from Smithers to Prince George to play, about 370 kilometres.

"Coming from Smithers, it's really quite astounding," he said.

That secluded upbringing turned Mr. Daust to science.

He and his family moved to Telkwa from the remote cabin when he was eight because school and music lessons were 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, Mr. Daust said he now takes a few courses at a local high school, one of which is musical theatre.

Next term he'll take Biology 11, Physics 12 and English 12, Mr. Daust said, adding he has also passed his Grade 10 violin exam with the Royal Conservatory of Music.

Mr. Daust said he loves chemistry and physics and would like to work in either specialty but will take a gap year after graduation, get some work experience.

"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.

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