Daniel Kornylo stands on the stage. A medal etched with “Au,” the periodic table symbol for gold, hangs from his neck.
He’s surrounded on the stage by other students from across Canada. They’re all receiving awards for their science fair projects at the 2019 Canada-Wide Science Fair in Fredericton, N.B. earlier this year — projects that explored cancer treatments, enhanced biofuels, designed orthotics and built medical wearable technology.
But, as many judges told him, Kornylo’s project stands out “like a sore thumb.”
The science fair veteran has opted for a different kind of project this year, and next, as he’s learned that this wasn’t a two-month and done kind of project, no. While his colleagues were discovering ways to improve airplane wing designs and researching designer pharmaceuticals, Kornylo, who’s now in Grade 11 at Gold River Secondary School, was learning about snakes.
Well, more specifically, snakes in captivity and the healthiest way of housing them.
Kornylo’s entire family is involved in Vancouver Island’s science fair community. His mom, Katrina, teaches science at the high school in Gold River and is the region’s science fair coordinator, while his dad, Dave, is a science fair mentor and helps Katrina run Au Squad, the after-school science fair club in Gold River. His younger sister Heather is also interested in science and that’s where his inspiration for his latest project, a research-friendly snake vivarium, comes from.
This year, Heather wants to look at the cognition and breeding of corn snakes, but she had nowhere to actually house the snakes safely. So her big brother offered to build them a home. He thought it would be a two-month project.
“It turned out to be a way bigger project and it’s going to be a two-year project now,” he says.
In doing preliminary research, Kornylo discovered that while snakes are becoming more and more popular as pets, the knowledge around keeping them happy and healthy in captivity hasn’t kept up.
Kornylo found that there are no vivariums, an enclosure to keep living organisms, available on the market today that would give his sister the control she needed to conduct her research. He says a lot of what is out there is plastic tubs and third-party products that snake-owners can jerry-rig together into a habitat.
“There’s not a lot of research out there on snakes,” he says. “There’s more information about mice than snakes.”
So, in the true spirit of science fair, he set out to solve a problem.
His mom hopped online to do her own research. She says corn snakes could live to between 12-16 years old in captivity, but the reality is that most won’t make it to 10.
“A lot of snakes die due to respiratory illnesses. It’s actually quite sad,” she says. “People don’t know how to take care of them.”
On forums, she’d read about people thinking they would get a heater for their pet snake.
“They end up frying their snake,” she says.
She believes that Kornylo’s design is going to prevent these types of accidents from happening.
The project, while dealing with live critters, wasn’t so far out of his wheelhouse. Kornylo has always been curious.
“Ever since I was a kid, I really loved it (science projects) and as years went on I got more complex in projects and now I’m getting into these projects probably that no one is ever thinking of doing, but I’m actually doing them,” he says. “I’m very excited to continue.”
Kornylo built the machine that allows him to make circuit boards. He looked at other options of course, but they were expensive and living in a small town on Vancouver Island didn’t help mailing timelines.
“I thought it would just be better to make my own machine,” he says. “It works very well.”
The main part of his design is the control box, which looks after all the electronic needs of the vivarium.
Kornylo explains that everything about his design is custom-made. For the control box prototype he presented at science fairs this year, he used mostly recycled materials, including scrap plexi-glass and wood.
He’s designing the units – which he’s planning to sell once they’re complete – to be stackable.
The main innovation, he says, is the control box. “That is the thing you can’t buy online.” He calls it: Enviro-Herp.
Comments from judges and the animal experts he’s consulted have been very positive.
He’s entering the final phase of the project: the enclosure construction (he needs to build four for his sister), the final assembly and the evaluation.
“I need people to see that this is something that needs to be made and it needs to be soon,” he says. “(Snakes) are becoming really popular and there’s no real good home for them.”
Kornylo has to get working fast. Heather’s baby snakes – called little noodles – have arrived and are almost out of quarantine. The Kornylo’s have geckoes at home and the new snakes are quarantined initially to prevent spreading any illnesses.
“I have to hustle,” he says. “I have to get working really fast.”
But between his school work and figure skating, Kornylo is tight on time.
He’s made a lot of sacrifices for his science fair projects over the years.
His mom says students don’t always get time in their school day to work on projects. But she believes it’s something important for them to pursue and is working to give them more time in the day to work.
She says science fair isn’t just about the science.
“It’s about presentation skills; how do you organize your time; how do you put together a project. To me there’s a lot of other valuable skills,” she says. “I see it as a very valuable tool.”
Kornylo says he’s learned to keep his cool and be patient during high-stress situations, like presenting his work to hundreds of strangers at the Canada-Wide Science Fair.
He now has a set of medals from the competition – one of every colour– and a whack of scholarship money for Ontario’s Western University. He doesn’t think he’ll get to use it though; he’s looking at schools closer to home and is considering studying biology, criminal forensics, or interior design.
With the Kornylo’s passion, science fair on the North Island is thriving. Fellow Gold River Secondary student Riley Last also attended the Canada-Wide Science Fair with her project on insulin pumps. North Island Secondary student Brooklynn Watson’s project on the human genome also brought home a bronze medal from Fredericton.
“We’re doing a lot of great science from Gold River and up. We need to get that momentum going,” says Katrina. “If you can spark an interest in a kid, you get that interest going then I think that’s amazing.
“Sometimes it’s not about the ABCs and the 123s, it’s about creating innovators. Those innovators are going to plan our future.”
And science fair is a big part of encouraging that innovation and creativity, about fostering young problem solvers.
“I’m really proud of my son,” says Katrina. “He’s solving a problem and that’s what it’s all about.”