WEF: High school students from New York won the U.S. Stockholm Junior Water Prize

The Water Environment Federation (WEF) announced that Rachel Chang and Ryan Thorpe, from Manhasset, New York, United States (U.S.), won the 2017 U.S. Stockholm Junior Water Prize (SJWP), the most prestigious youth competition for water-related research in the nation.

The SJWP aims to increase students’ interest in water research, issues, and careers, while also raising awareness about global water challenges. The competition is open to projects focused on improving the quality of water, water resource management, water protection, and treatment of drinking water and wastewater.

From the 16th to the 17th of June, students from 48 states and Puerto Rico competed at the national finals at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, North Carolina, with Chang and Thorpe emerging as the winners.

With their project to detect and purify water contaminated with bacteria, Chang and Thorpe not only won US$10,000, they also won an all-expenses paid trip to Stockholm, Sweden, to represent their country at the international competition coming up in late August.

The two runners-up from the U.S. were Ana Humphrey from Alexandria, Virginia, and Apoorv Khandehal from Sammamish, Washington, who won US$1,000 each. Luca Barcelo of Greenwich, Connecticut, received the Bjorn von Euler Innovation in Water Scholarship Award from Xylem Inc.

Students from 48 states and Puerto Rico competed at the national finals held from the 16th to the 17th of June at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, North Carolina.

In their winning paper, titled, “A Novel Approach to Rapidly and Sensitively Detect and Purify Water Contaminated with Shigella, E. coli, Salmonella, and Cholera,” Change and Thorpe noted that 3.4 million deaths a year around the world are caused by waterborne diseases, and usually concentrated in countries that lack access to sanitary water. With that in mind, Chang and Thorpe engineered a system to efficiently detect and purify bacterial presence in a more rapid time frame with a lower detection limit than orthodox methods. Graphene was used to develop four specific biosensors through the immobilisation of specific enzymes that target analytes released during the respiratory cycles of model organisms for Shigella, E. coli, Salmonella, and Cholera. During testing, the system detected minute levels of bacteria within a rapid time frame and purified the water, ridding it of pathogens.

“The scientific approach used was excellent and allowed Chang and Thorpe to develop high-quality, reproducible data,” chair of the SJWP Review Committee, Jeanette Brown, said. “The process they developed is simple and rapid and can be used in both developed and developing countries to ensure safe drinking water. This was an outstanding project.”

“WEF is very proud to shine a spotlight on some of our country’s brightest high school students, who impress us all with their innovative projects that focus on protecting our precious water resources,” Executive Director of WEF, Eileen O’ Neill, added. “These students give us great confidence in the future of water science and research.”

In the U.S., WEF and its Member Associations organise the regional, state, and national competitions with support from Xylem, which also sponsors the international competition.