The Seeker

Like the solar tracker she invented to take full advantage of the sun, Syndi Nettles turns herself constantly in the direction of knowledge, truth, and light.

You wouldn’t guess polynomials and chlorofluorocarbons were lurking in Syndi’s brain by observing her. Curled up on the family’s couch, 15-year-old Syndi Nettles of Roy, Utah, looks like any other teenager with blonde, shoulder-length hair cropped at the sides, clear complexion, and radiant smile. She chats easily and with quiet assurance. Her mother says she’s always surrounded by boys. It’s easy to believe. But most likely they are talking about science or her inventions.

“I feel more comfortable around boys,” she admits. “I guess we have more in common. Girls are usually too busy worrying about their hair or guys. I like to look nice, but I won’t get up at 4:00 A.M. to do it. My girlfriends often ask who I’m talking to and if this one or that one is my boyfriend.” She rolls her eyes, “Hardly.”

Boys are great, but for now there are more important considerations. Her eyes light up at the mention of future inventions or past science trips. “I can’t wait to get started on this year’s science fair project,” she says. “It’s going to be so neat. But I can’t say what it is.”

It smacks of cloak and dagger, but original inventions must be guarded. Her solar tracker, “The Searcher,” which won first place honors in state as well as international competition, has been the subject of much scrutiny each place it has been displayed.

“I watched people copy down every word I’d written on my display,” says Syndi in amazement. “In Montreal, representatives from some companies came to see it. I should have had it patented, but it costs too much money.”

“The Searcher” is an original creation designed to keep the energy of the sun at a maximum for solar collectors to heat homes. It consists of a satellite dish with a rod in the middle. If the dish is not positioned perfectly to take full advantage of the sun (due to the rotating earth) the shadow of the rod falls on sensors in the dish which automatically correct its position. Keeping the dish aimed directly at the sun produces optimum power.

The reason Syndi is toying with world energy issues while most girls her age are plotting tomorrow’s outfit is partially due to her unconventional upbringing. Her father is a talented engineer. Growing up she hung around the garage with her dad building model planes and go-carts.

When she wasn’t helping Dad, she was and still is expected to shoulder much of the responsibility around the house and care for her four younger brothers and sisters. Syndi’s mother has multiple sclerosis, a disease she’s had since before Syndi was born.

“Syndi’s been forced to become more mature because of my health problems,” says her mother, Wanda. “But we’ve tried to distribute the burden equally among the children.”

“Oh, yeah?” says Syndi, good-naturedly. “When you’re in the hospital, the other kids don’t do anything.” Syndi and Wanda begin to laugh.

It was during sixth grade that Syndi’s interest in science was piqued by school experiments. “We did stuff like grow crystals and turn eggs to rubber in vinegar,” she recalls. “I loved it.” In seventh grade her experiments became a tad more sophisticated. She built a direct current motor as part of an assigned science project.

“Dad was terrified I was going to electrocute myself,” she says with a grin. “I didn’t, but I have come close. See.” Syndi thrusts out her hand to show a tiny scar.

Her mother said, “I had no idea Syndi had all this potential. In seventh and eighth grades, she just exploded.”

But it was in ninth grade where Syndi began leaping tall buildings and winning awards faster than a speeding bullet. Her solar tracker alone won four first-place awards—one at the Utah State Science Fair and three at the International Science Fair in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She was invited to the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory for a week; the Solar Energy Research Institute for four days; the Colorado School of Mines, Energy, and Minerals Field Institute for six days; the Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, California, for four days; and most recently the World Energy Congress Conference in Montreal for eight days. Her trips were all paid for by the U.S. Department of Energy, NASA, or other government agencies.

Representatives from 93 nations attended the conference in Montreal to which youth were invited. Of the approximately 80 young people in attendance from countries around the world, Syndi was one of only a handful of girls. She also had the distinction of being the youngest in attendance.

“It was great,” she says with excitement, “except I don’t speak French, and they kept serving me wine. Someone finally told me to turn my glass upside down, and I wouldn’t be served.”

According to Syndi, she’s learned far more in the past year than just biotechnology, hydropower, and fossil energy. “I’ve learned a whole lot about everything!”

She returns from each conference ten to fifteen pounds heavier. Not from junk food, but from the reams of printed material she lugs home. “Boxes of it,” says Wanda. “And she really reads it.”

She also enjoys discussing each conference with her father, who is still one step ahead. The other day she and her dad had a heated discussion about the ozone layer while pushing Wanda through the grocery store in her wheelchair.

And it’s her mother who has introduced Syndi to another world—art and literature. Syndi has taken to it just as she has with science. She has won awards at her high school for her poetry.

If it’s not global monitoring Syndi’s batting around, it might be Nephi and the brass plates. Religion seems to crop up wherever she is. After her first few trips she decided there were two things she couldn’t leave home without—her Book of Mormon and Church pamphlets.

“The people I’ve met seem to respect my beliefs,” says Syndi, “and no one has tried to pressure me to do things I don’t believe in. Many have made an effort not to swear around me. One night I stayed up really late explaining the Church.”

Dedicated to the gospel, Syndi has read the Old Testament, Pearl of Great Price, and Doctrine and Covenants. She has also read the Book of Mormon three times and the New Testament twice.

Syndi wishes more girls would join her in the math and science arena. Only a small percentage of the nation’s students are going into the technological fields, a fact which has not escaped the notice of many large corporations and government agencies concerned about the nation’s future.

“I know the things I enjoy don’t appeal to everyone,” says Syndi. “But there are girls who are being stopped or who are stopping themselves simply because they’re girls, and that’s not right. I’ve never worried that boys would like me less because I’m good at math and science, but I know a lot of girls do. I have a friend who loves chemistry but can’t handle competing with men. I wish girls would realize there’s a lot they could contribute to the field and that being smart in math and science doesn’t make them less appealing. I think it makes them more so because guys can communicate with them better.”

In addition, women often have a different perspective than men, according to Syndi, therefore their voices need to be heard more. “In Montreal, for example, I noticed during a debate that the men tended to hold the economy above ecology and women vice versa. But I think that’s beginning to change.”

With so much sizzle at such a young age, will Syndi burn out?

“Definitely not!” she says. “Every year it gets more interesting and exciting.” Her mother says that when Syndi gets home from a seminar, she’s literally dancing around the room because she is so excited by what she is learning.

Her long-range goals (not necessarily in order) are to earn an engineering degree at Cal Tech on scholarship, be married in the temple, raise a family, and improve the world’s energy outlook.

“I think I can make a difference,” she says simply.

[photos] Photography by Welden Andersen

[photos] In her workshop, Syndi makes practical use of science and engineering skills. One of her projects, which could help improve the world’s energy outlook, won national and international acclaim. (Far left) Syndi and friends Emily Minchew and Brian Cieslewicz love to play computer games.

[photos] Syndi and friends out for a ride. Sporting hats from Grandma and Grandpa, the Nettles are (clockwise from lower left) Samuel, David, Wanda, Doug, Billie the dog, Mark, Tina, and Syndi.

[photo] Her father is a talented engineer, and that’s how Syndi got started. Growing up, she hung around the garage, building model planes and go-carts. She still hangs around with Dad, but now she’s almost his peer.