Jake Drysdale went for a walk in London.
When he and his father, Doug, stepped out of their flat near Abbey Road Studios, there was nothing extraordinary about it. Drysdale and his father have done extraordinary things. They've run through a dormant volcano in Hawaii together several times. They spend their annual summer vacation in Montana. Doug had taken his son around the country and globe. By the time Drysdale was 12 years old, he visited 10 countries and 35 states.
As a fifth grader at the American School in London, he crossed the same street every day that John, Ringo, Paul and George made an iconic album cover.
But this particular day, on this particular street, on this particular walk, Drysdale stumbled across his destiny.
The pair came upon a group of surgical mask-clad scientists as they sprayed a water-like solution on the side of a building. Always the inquisitive child, Drysdale wanted to know what they were doing and why.
So he asked.
Drysdale was told the solution contained nanoscale titanium dioxide. They explained this was the second part of a three-year experiment to determine if the nanoscale titanium dioxide could reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas in the vicinity of where it was applied to the building.
It was Drysdale's introduction to what would become his passion, his business and offer him the key to solving what he believes is the greatest challenge facing his generation.
A brilliant and driven student, Drysdale is Priory's St. Louis Post-Dispatch Scholar Athlete. The Scholar Athlete program recognizes student-athletes from area high schools for their achievement in academics, athletics and service.
Drysdale, 18, fit all the criteria, and as is his habit, went above and beyond. A standout on the cross country and track and field teams, the 6-foot and 140-pound Drysdale was the No. 1 runner in the fall as the Rebels' cross country team raced to the Metro League championship, the Class 3 District 2 championship and finished in fourth place in Class 3. It was the first time the Rebels earned a trophy at the state meet since they were the Class 2 runner-up in 2005.
Drysdale finished in 13th place to earn all-state honors. It was the perfect end to the season for Drysdale, but not because of what he did as an individual. Senior-laden Priory raced for Joe Gleich. After 41 years as a teacher and coach at Priory, Gleich will retire at the end of this school year. It was the team's goal to get him on the medal stand one more time.
“This is my swan song, so to speak. Their goal was to take the team to state and be a top four team,” said Gleich, 65. “It's a humbling goal because the boys are usually about their team and not about their coach.”
For Drysdale, Gleich is no ordinary coach. The pair spend upwards of five hours a day together. Gleich is Drysdale's instructor for AP chemistry and science fiction. He is Drysdale's academic adviser and his senior thesis reader.
Drysdale reveres Gleich and his embodiment of Priory's mission to develop the mind, body and spirit.
“He's been amazing,” Drysdale said. “He's really inspired me.”
The feeling is mutual.
Drysdale's work in the classroom is remarkable. When Drysdale's name appeared on a class roster, Gleich knew it would be good for everyone in the room.
“I think Jake is the kind of person who leads by example. He's not a rah-rah-sis-boom-bah kid that tries to drum up support. People see what he does and they want to emulate him,” Gleich said. “That's true whether he's in the classroom or outside of it. He's an outstanding student and I think people see his work ethic and they maybe work harder as a result of it.”
Drysdale's family has instilled in him a simple ethos — effort and attitude. If Drysdale gives his best effort and does it with his best attitude, then he can be at peace regardless of the result.
It's why he was compelled to carve out time to run over the summer while on vacation in Montana. It's among the reasons he and his father like to run the 10-kilometer trail at Hawaii's Haleakala volcano over spring break. Drysdale is driven to give himself the best chance at success as a student and athlete.
“That self-discipline to do it on his own when the coaches and other athletes weren't there is a reason why Jake has been so successful in all his endeavors,” Gleich said. “He is exceptional in almost every measure. Everything he does he strives for excellence. As a result, he often achieves excellence.”
Notre Dame liked what it saw in Drysdale. He will attend the renowned university on a full academic scholarship and study chemistry.
Notre Dame is a special place for Drysdale's family. His mother, Heidi, was raised in South Bend and attended St. Mary's, the women's college across the street from Notre Dame. Doug graduated from Notre Dame's law program. Jake's parents were wed at Notre Dame and he was baptized in its chapel.
All of that notwithstanding, Drysdale chose Notre Dame because it is at the cutting edge of renewable energy and nanotechnologies, two of his passions.
After his conversation with the scientists on the street in London, Drysdale became fascinated by nanotechnology. When his family returned to St. Louis so he could begin at Priory in seventh grade, Drysdale continued to follow the news of the world via the British Broadcasting Corporation. The BBC, he said, has a more global view than most American news sources. Drysdale likes to say he became a “citizen of the world” during his year in London. The cosmopolitan city exposed him to a variety of cultures and issues facing the globe.
The one that struck closest to home is climate change. During his vacations in Montana, Drysdale frequents Glacier National Park. After his third-grade year, Drysdale did field research for what would become his fourth-grade science fair project about the melting glaciers at the park.
“I went a little above and beyond. I interviewed rangers, went on hikes, took pictures,” Drysdale said. “The rangers told me that scientists project that by 2030 there will be no more glaciers in Glacier National Park. I became very interested in that and I was looking for ways to solve this problem.”
After returning from London, Drysdale browsed the BBC website and came across a story about the results of the three-year titanium dioxide study. The scientists found by spraying the nanoscale titanium dioxide on the wall of the building they significantly reduced air pollution and greenhouse gas.
The nanotechnology solution worked.
“It takes weeks, months and years to happen naturally,” Drysdale said. “When you're spraying this in a concentrated form on a surface you're rapidly accelerating that process so that it takes billionths of a second to break down pollution.”
He wanted to use this nanotechnology in a way that would be effective and practical. One day, as he walked into school, he had an idea.
“I would love to nano-coat a skyscraper, but I don't have the time or the resources to do that,” Drysdale said. “I wanted to do something to help students and teachers, so I thought why not nano-coat those banner signs that hang on high school campuses all over the place?”
His company Nanotech Smart Signs was born.
As a junior, Drysdale pitched the idea for his company at the 30-Day Entrepreneurship Challenge and won. He was awarded $2,000 in prize money, which was exactly the amount he needed to purchase his equipment.
Last Memorial Day weekend, Drysdale went to New York City to be trained and lab-certified to apply the nanoscale titanium dioxide. He is the youngest person in the world with this certification.
“You have to be professionally certified to do this,” Drysdale said. “You can't buy this over the counter and do it yourself.”
The family garage serves as Drysdale's lab. It was there he coated a dozen vinyl banners for Priory. They hang on the light poles near the student dropoff and pickup and eat away at the pollution caused by the vehicles that come and go every day.
“Those dozen signs hanging on campus right now are removing the amount of air pollution equivalent to more than 1,000 car trips per year between Priory and the Starbucks 1.3 miles away,” Drysdale said.
As Drysdale's sign business grew into a passion, he scouted which universities would offer him the best chance to continue studying nanotechnology and renewable energy. Over the summer, he visited MIT and Harvard. It wasn't until he went to his home away from home that he found what he wanted.
“It's magical, it really is. I discovered that Notre Dame is the best place in the world to go as an undergraduate to study renewable energy and nanotechnologies. They're doing the best work,” Drysdale said. “There's no place else in the world for me to go for the things I want to study. It's a perfect fit.”
Nanotech Smart Signs is coming to Notre Dame, as well. Drysdale is in the process of planning to nano-coat 100 vinyl signs that will hang around Notre Dame Stadium.
“It'll remove the equivalent of more than 80,000 taxi rides per year between Notre Dame and the Eddy Street Commons entertainment district that is popular with students,” Drysdale said. “That's the next big project. They're fired up about it. I'm really excited and honored to do something like this.”
Drysdale's goal is to find practical solutions for the environmental problems facing a rapidly growing global population. Nano-coating vinyl signs is just the start. Drysdale has grander plans for the future.
“I think the defining technological and moral challenge of my generation is to provide a sustainable home for a world population that has doubled in one generation,” Drysdale said. “I plan to devote my academic and professional careers to innovating renewable energy and nanotechnology to help solve the problem of global sustainability.”