As if it weren’t enough to win the 2011 Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of a ballerina coming unhinged in “Black Swan,” Natalie Portman is apparently also blessed with science smarts. A 1998 Journal of Chemical Education paper recently came across the Newscripts desk that the 29-year-old actress—then Natalie Hershlag, a high school student in Syosset, N.Y.—coauthored.
The article, “A Simple Method To Demonstrate the Enzymatic Production of Hydrogen from Sugar,” was the result of an independent-study project carried out by Portman during her sophomore year at Syosset High. Intended to illustrate “environmentally friendly biotechnology for the utilization of renewable energy sources,” the work earned Portman a semifinalist position that year in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search, an annual competition organized by the Society for Science & the Public.
The laboratory instructions Portman helped develop aim to teach high schoolers and undergraduates the principles of enzyme-catalyzed reactions by instructing them how to break down cellulose with a combination of cellulase, glucose dehydrogenase, and hydrogenase. The amount of hydrogen evolved in the process is indicated by a simple redox dye, benzyl viologen.
“Natalie was an excellent student with an excellent work ethic,” says Jonathan Woodward, Portman’s coauthor and adviser at the time. He was then at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and now teaches high school chemistry in Knoxville, Tenn. “I am certain she would have excelled in chemistry had her career taken that path.”
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