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Freshman Rebecca Ye (inset) developed an inexpensive method to quickly detect E. coli in water. (Photo: David Kilper; background: ©iStockphoto)

Frontrunners

Freshman Improves Water Sanitation, Wins National Prize

"Not all people recognize that water is an ­important resource, simply because it’s one of the things we in developed countries take for granted,” says freshman Rebecca Ye. “The United Nations recently declared that access to clean water and sanitation is a basic human right. This makes an already pressing issue even more relevant.”

Motivated by this worldwide problem — an estimated 884 million people lack access to safe drinking water — Ye is taking action to improve water sanitation. She developed an inexpensive method to quickly detect E. coli in water. Ye’s biosensor detected the bacteria within 24 hours as opposed to the previous method that took nearly four days.

“The United Nations recently declared that access to clean water and sanitation is a basic human right. This makes an already pressing issue even more relevant.”

Ye, a native of Maine, entered her project in the state competition for the 2010 Stockholm Junior ­Water Prize (SJWP). She won the state and ­national titles. Ye then competed at the ­international competition in ­Sweden. Although she did not win, Ye enjoyed the experience.

“Stockholm is an amazing city,” she says. “I was surrounded by individuals who were interested in the same issues and working to do something about it.”

Her interest in water sanitation ­began in high school. “Mr. Cary James, my chemistry teacher, was passionate about water and advocated for the environment,” Ye says.

For her SJWP project, she worked with Vivian Wu, a ­professor at the University of Maine, and conducted all experiments in Wu’s lab. “Without Dr. Wu’s generosity and patience in teaching me, it would not have been possible to accomplish this project,” Ye says.

Although she has not yet declared a major, Ye plans to ­attend medical school and continue her water-related research. “It’s been such an amazing learning experience,” she says.

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