What were you doing when you were a freshman in high school? Jessica Helwig was drawing up plans to start her own business.
Jessica is a self-proclaimed “farm girl” who grew up in Winnebago and was always interested in soils. So in her first year at Winnebago High School, Jessica started doing research on biochar, a soil enhancer that is basically the black char left in your fire pit or burn pile after you have burned biomass such as grass or wood chips. You can till the biochar back into the ground and use it for planting.
“Biochar is essentially carbon and plants love carbon,” says Jessica. “I like to describe biochar as this big storage unit and a lot of things can come into this storage unit. Plants love that.”
Through her research, she wanted to prove to herself that it worked and that it could be put to use in an agricultural setting.
“There are a lot of cellulose waste streams out there,” says Jessica. “So I thought what if I could reduce that waste by turning it into char and putting it back into the ground for agricultural use.”
Jessica began investigating a biochar company in Colorado that was having success and even drew up her first business plan as a high school freshman. By her junior year at Winnebago High School, she decided to come to Rock Valley College as part of the Running Start program. In her final semester at RVC, she worked on an independent research study with RVC biology instructor Moria Nagy. They wanted to test how biochar reacts in the presence of bacteria so they created an experiment, did their research together, and conducted the experiment over the course of the spring semester.
Their findings were assembled into a research poster that was presented to judges at the Northern Illinois University Undergraduate Research and Development Day on April 25. A refined version of the research poster will eventually be on display in the Karl J. Jacobs Center for Science and Math on RVC’s main campus.
“We found some things, but not any breakthroughs,” says Jessica. “But it has been a blast. Doing that research together [with Professor Nagy] has been so eye opening. To have that one-on-one with a professor like that and to be able to do research with them and get to know them better is just so cool. It was a great experience.”
Jessica just graduated in May from the Running Start program, meaning she graduated from high school and RVC simultaneously. Her next stop is the University of Wisconsin-Platteville where she plans to major in Soil Sciences and minor in Agribusiness. She hopes to find a professor at Platteville who is willing to help her continue the research she began at RVC. As for the business, her goal is to launch it by the time she graduates from Platteville. She looks at the “running start” she received as a big advantage for someone as eager as she is to get her business rolling.
“[Running Start] is a beautiful program,” says Jessica. “It really gave me the challenge I was looking for and it gives me a two year head start now on starting my business.”