For many of us, our high school science fair likely involved creative experimentation that may have yielded one more baking soda and vinegar volcano. Not so for 16-year-old Maria Elena Grimmett, a student at the Oxbridge Academy of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, Fla., who is already an accomplished scientist tackling serious water quality issues that threaten the health of rivers, streams and groundwater.
At the age of 14, Grimmett became the youngest person published in the Journal of Environmental Quality. Now at 16, she has just put the final touches on her latest research, also published in the Journal, of a plastic adsorbent that removes pharmaceutical drugs from water sources.
Grimmett’s parents say her interest in science is self-propelled. The journey to publication was a product of gumption, passion, a supportive scientific community, and a collection of events that led her to water quality research.
In search for an interesting project for the sixth grade science fair, Grimmett noticed that the well water at her house was looking brown. After some research, she discovered she could remove the water stains using resins — tiny chains of plastic that attract contaminants, causing them to “stick” to the resins. While presenting her board at the county science fair (at which she won first place in the Environmental Science category), she noticed another student’s work on the contamination of the Everglades by pharmaceuticals. Grimmett was horrified that most water treatment filters don’t remove these drugs. Armed with purpose, she embarked on a research project to do something about it.
“It’s scary that 80 percent of rivers, streams, and groundwater in this country are contaminated by at least one organic contaminant,” Grimmett says.
Modern water treatment tactics are good for removing common contaminants, but many pharmaceuticals and other chemicals escape treatment simply due to their extreme diversity. The drugs get into the water after excretion by humans and animals that take them medicinally. One drug in particular, sulfamethazine, is a common antibiotic fed to livestock to promote growth and to prevent diseases.
“90 percent of it is not metabolized and ends up in water sources,” Grimmett says.
For six years, Grimmett used her summers to experiment with sulfamethazine and specific types of polymer resins, which she describes as “just small plastic beads with tiny gaps.” Water is passed through a container loaded with resins. The offending drug clings to the tiny spaces in the resins, leaving the water to flow out drug-free.
Grimmett hopes to see her research employed in the real world by water engineers.
“Resins are so versatile,” she says. “I’ve only been testing for sulfamethazine, but I bet they are capable of removing more than just the one pharmaceutical.”
The technique applies at any scale, from household to city water treatment.
Because of a rule restricting lab use by anyone under 16, Grimmett commandeered her family’s garage and the dining room for her experiments. Her proud parents say they didn’t resent the invasion of pipettes and test tubes too much, mostly because Grimmett was willing to do all the work herself.
“She was able to do it all at home due to her determination, multiple contacts with scientists and companies, and I suppose my wife and I, who were willing to play ball,” Grimmett’s father, Michael, an ophthalmologist, said in a statement.
Grimmett says she has no trouble being taken seriously by her peers in the science community.
“Everyone is so supportive,” she says. “Whenever I read articles and have questions for the author, they are always responsive and helpful.”
Talking to the right people, asking the right questions, and working hard on solutions has paid off. Grimmett has a lot more access to materials and expertise as a result.
“It takes a village to raise a child,” her father says. “For Maria Elena, the ‘village’ was her global network with PhD researchers that she contacted from published articles, and forward thinking company presidents and CEOs who believed in her.”
For Grimmett, the chance to work with passionate water scientists has been one of the best parts of her work. “I love going to water conferences,” she says.
Companies around the world have begun using innovative, organic water-filtration solutions as ways to also promote outdoor recreation: In 2014, natural cosmetics brand Shokobutsu Hana launched a campaign to build awareness of the “healthy beauty brought by the power of nature” by literally cleaning a polluted Philippine river with an 88-foot, floating organic billboard; NYC startup **Plus Pool **is developing a floating, water-filtering pool for the Hudson River; and in May, the King’s Cross Swimming Pool, a manmade, freshwater swimming pond kept clean and filtered through natural processes, opened in London.