The saying goes, "One man's trash is another man's treasure." And trash accumulating in the world's oceans, in fact, may yield a treasure trove of high-profile recognition for Fairfield Country Day School ninth-grader Thompson "Tommy" Whiteley.
The filtration system he designed for ocean-going barges that mimics the feeding methods of baleen whales has already earned the 14-year-old animal lover and emerging environmentalist top honors in the national Dream Green to Save the Planet innovation competition, and an invitation to the fourth annual White House Science Fair, hosted this week by President Barack Obama.
Whiteley was one of 100 students from 30 states invited to attend the science event Tuesday. The fair showcased those who show promise in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM.
"I was very honored that they would even include me in this event," said Whiteley, an Easton resident for whom the science fair marked a first visit to the White House. He toured the Rose Garden and several rooms of the White House, viewed the science exhibits of 30 participating students, and met with senior Obama administration officials, leading STEM communicators, advocates and educators, including Bill Nye, the television personality known as the "Science Guy."
Obama addressed the students in the East Room. "He was very enthusiastic about kids getting involved in STEM-related careers. He wanted to do whatever he could to empower the next generation, and you could tell it was a genuine interest in what he was talking about," Whiteley said.
Whiteley's passion for animals and science is also easily evident, according to the people who know him best.
"Tommy is deeply passionate about animals, specifically endangered species. He demonstrated his commitment to saving those endangered species in so many different ways. It's been a joy to watch him pursue this passion," said Mark Grayson, of Fairfield, the CEO of Rocket21, a social networking platform designed to connect kids and teens with professionals and experts representing industries and professions around the world.
Rocket21 sponsored the "Think Outside the Tank" design contest, in collaboration with Nat Geo WILD's Fish Tank Kings, and the Dream Green contest, both of which Whiteley won. As a National Innovation Winner, Whiteley was a guest at Ted Turner's "Captain Planet Foundation Eco-Gala," where he met Turner, former President Jimmy Carter and renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle.
Whiteley's idea, which put him on a path to the White House event, would address a grave ecological issue, an indeterminate-sized patch of garbage plaguing the North Pacific. Small fish eat the plastics, which are eaten by bigger fish and the bigger fish are then consumed by humans.
"My idea combined engineering with the science of evolution and nature to present a practical solution for combating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. My design ... would be made out of overlapping layers of bristles, which would trap garbage from large bottles to microscopic plastic particles," Whiteley wrote for his school's daily e-blog.
Cliff Paige, head of the upper school at Fairfield Country Day School and Whiteley's homeroom teacher, has known the teen since he was in kindergarten.
"He is a diligent student. He played squash, he runs cross country, he played soccer, and he's got this burning passion about animals. He's a gentle, caring, wonderful kid," Paige said, adding that on a class trip to Miami in early May, Whiteley was mostly interested in how the staff treated the animals at the Seaquarium. "And, luckily for the Seaquarium, he found that they treat them very well," Paige said.
Whiteley is as concerned for his fellow man as he is for animals. He recently raised about $20,000, in a self-initiated letter-writing campaign, to support a modest computer lab and the solar panels to power it for schoolchildren in Africa. Whiteley also is a volunteer at the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, N.Y.
"He would save every wolf in the world if he could," Paige said. "I guarantee he will do something in his life to help the creatures of the planet. I have no doubt that this kid is going to do something real special in life with his passion. It's that strong. You don't see kids that are so dedicated to things. He never wavers in his passion."