World Water Week in Stockholm Preview: Junior scientists compete for international water prize

Aug. 11, 2009

By Charles Ashby

It's widely known that mercury levels in the world's oceans and freshwater supplies are increasing and that its more hazardous form -- methylmercury -- is extremely harmful to humans, wildlife and the environment. But how to reduce it in our water and food supplies is still a mystery among top scientists.

Now, thanks to an increasingly popular international competition founded by ITT Corp. that focuses on such things, the answers may be coming from an unlikely source: a recent high school graduate from North Carolina.

Eileen Jang of North Carolina, winner of the U.S. nomination to compete for the 2009 Stockholm Junior Water Prize, in front of a poster of her presentation.Mercurial LessonsWorking in a pre-college internship program at Duke University's Civil and Environmental Engineering Center, 17-year-old Eileen Jang has helped further scientists' understanding of how the toxin accumulates in water supplies with her research on nanoparticles of mercury-sulfide, which is a precursor to methylmercury.

Scientific research on how such nanoparticles persist in aquatic systems is limited, Jang says. But understanding how mercury methylates into its toxic form is a necessary first step in reducing and preventing it.

Her research found that the aggregation rate of the nanoparticles speeds up as the salinity of the water increases. She simultaneously discovered that it decreases in the presence of cysteine -- a common amino acid found in such foods as eggs, yogurt, garlic and broccoli.

"Mercury was one of those things you've heard about growing up, so I was really interested in working with it," Jang said. "I started off saying, 'I don't really know what's going to happen' (with the research), but then I read more and came to my own hypothesis. It was pleasant to be able to actually carry out this process myself and discover something."

U.S. winner and finalists for 2009 SJWP nomination competition -- (L-R) Eileen Jang of North Carolina, Li Boynton of Texas, Scott Boisvert of Arizona, Collin McAliley of Florida.In Good CompanyNot only has Jang furthered the emerging field of nanogeoscience, but her work also has given other scientists new insight into determining ways of dealing with the toxic metal. The discovery won Jang the U.S. national title for the 2009 Stockholm Junior Water Prize, an internationally known award that honors some of the best young minds when it comes to water and the environmental issues surrounding it. The award is sponsored globally by ITT Corp., a global high-technology engineering and manufacturing company that includes water management among its strengths.

In mid-August, Jang will represent the U.S. alongside other young scientists from more than 30 other nations at World Water Week in Stockholm to compete for the top international prize and a chance to be honored by Victoria Ingrid Alice Désirée, the crown princess of Sweden. This year, about 8,000 budding scientists, as young as 15 have entered the contest.

The prize, now in its 13th year, has inspired thousands of young scientists from around the world to pursue careers studying the issues surrounding water and the environment. ITT's interest in sponsoring such an event is fitting. As a company that operates on all seven continents of the globe, it has products that affect every aspect of the water cycle, including the best ways to treat it. It make sense that such a company would want to see -- and encourage -- young minds to enter the field of water environment research to continue creating a pipeline of discovery, talent and innovation.

Mohamed Dahab, head of the U.S. nominations committee, presents Jang with the national trophy.Practical SolutionsBjörn von Euler, ITT's director of corporate philanthropy and a contest judge, said the competition has helped drive innovation, and that has led to sustainable products that can and have been put into practice across the globe.

"Most of our water customers are municipal customers, so doing the right thing is, of course, very important," he said. "Sustainability is very important, but we can't really be believable (as a company) if we want to tout sustainability but don't include the next generation. So that's what we did.

"Today, the junior water prize has spread to more than 30 countries," he added. "Over the years, we believe we have touched about two million people. It has been very successful."

Fostering Inspiration
In that time, students from all over the world have come up with never-before-attempted research on dangerous substances that end up in the water supply, and unique ways to handle wastewater treatment. The 2007 winners, for example, were three students from Mexico who devised a way to use eggshells to absorb lead in industrial wastewater. Their project resulted in a simple and inexpensive method for treating it.

The year before that, three Chinese students won for a relatively simple project that helped restore a highly polluted river. Other past winners have come up with unique ways to control and monitor the use of irrigated water in South Africa, recovering and protecting polluted groundwater in Japan, and using charcoal rather than sand to filter antibiotics from municipal drinking water along the Ohio River. That last prize went to an American, Ashley Mulroy, in 2000, one of four Americans to win the prize so far.

Von Euler said the Wheeling, West Virginia, high school student's work exposed alarming rates of pharmaceuticals in the nation's water supply. She earned widespread attention for that work, which led to a national effort to deal with it. While that is a perfect example of the benefit the competition has created, von Euler's favorite story about the contest centers on a young man who didn't even win it.

Growing up a small hamlet in Vietnam, a 13-year-old boy became increasingly concerned over how the townsfolk were using a water pond in the middle of the village. Not only was the water being used for drinking and irrigating crops, but also for sewage. To combat this major sanitation problem, he developed a plan not only to clean the dirty pond, but to keep it that way.

"He then brought his concept to the village eldermen, who agreed to implement the concept," von Euler said. "The results were astounding. People were not as sick as they were before, and the neighboring villages were so impressed by the success, they copied it."

Eyes on the Prize
The prize Jang hopes to win not only comes with a $5,000 award and a custom-made crystal sculpture, but it also gives all contestants a chance to meet others in the scientific community and make contacts that can help them continue their scholarly pursuits.

Jang herself recently graduated from the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, a public high school in Durham, and has been accepted to Yale University, where she will continue studying chemistry.

Her competition for the final prize is impressive. They include three Argentina students who developed a prototype for a microbial fuel cell that can naturally remove bacterial contaminants from water and convert them into electricity, a Sri Lankan team that came up with a homemade charcoal that removes more contaminants than other activated carbon used in the island nation, and a Latvian girl whose research showed that low levels of coagulation concentration worsened the quality of water that is undergoing treatment.

In the face of all that, Jang said winning would be nice, but it isn't the best part of competing.

"I'm just really glad to have this opportunity to go to Sweden and see other people's projects, and meet so many people," she said. "I think that's the best part about this competition, to be able to meet other kids from other nations. We all have the same interests, so it's very neat. But I'm definitely going to prepare and hope for the best." WWi

About the Author: Charles Ashby is a freelance writer living in Denver. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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August 2009