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Water, water everywhere: WU freshman represented U.S. at Stockholm water meeting

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 19, 2010 - Rebecca Ye, a freshman at Washington University, already has a major scientific accomplishment under her belt. Ye represented the United States in the Stockholm International Water Institute's Junior Water Prize Competition.

"It was an amazing, inspiring experience," said Ye, who is from Maine. "I was fortunate to be chosen for this once-in-a-lifetime event."

The Junior Water Prize Competition was part of the institute's World Water Week, an annual meeting for water experts from around the world where ideas about how to deal with the world's various water crises can be discussed and improved.

"Essentially, my project was a biosensor designed to specifically detect E. coli O157:H7, which is a pathogenic variant of E. coli," said Ye. "Usually, it takes at least several days to detect E. coli O157:H7 in samples, but this method -- which combined biosensing, gold nanoparticles and immunosensing (which uses antibodies) -- takes about a day instead."

Ye attended the conference in September along with representatives from 29 other countries. All the participants were between 15-20, and all had won their respective nation's competition. The participants went to seminars by many experts in the world of water, including former winners of the Stockholm Water Prize, and even attended an awards banquet in which King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden presented this year's laureate, Dr. Rita Colwell, with her award.

The junior competition was judged by teams of experts who briefly interviewed each country's representatives, and then selected a final winner. This year the winner was the Canadian team, made up of Alexandre Allard and Danny Luong. Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden presented them with their award, $5,000 and a blue crystal sculpture. The duo's project used microbes to remove polystyrene, a common plastic used in packaging that takes hundreds of years to biodegrade, from the word's oceans. Polystyrene is currently one of the main sources of water pollution today.

Aside from competing and learning more about today's water issues, the representatives also went sailing around Stockholm, which is located on an archipelago, and went to Skansen, a zoo there, which is the oldest open air zoo in Sweden. Said Ye, it was "an amazing city."

Ye got to the international competition by winning the national one, held here in St. Louis in June. Along with the all expense paid trip to Sweden, she also won $3,000.

Ye's interest in science began her sophomore year in high school when she got involved in research through her chemistry teacher, Cary James. In her junior year, she met Vivian Wu at a science symposium. Wu, a professor at the University of Maine, invited Ye to work in her lab. The two researched possible ideas for Ye's project. Once they came up with an idea, James suggested that Ye apply the idea to water.

"I had the honor of attending World Water Week, and for a week I was surrounded by individuals who are all motivated by the same issues," said Ye. "Sometimes, people don't recognize water as the important resource that it is, simply because we take for granted. It was a really eye-opening experience to attend and learn about the issues that happen around the world that are all centered around this resource."

Danny Steinberg is an intern at the Beacon.