Throughout 2014, Ebola ravaged West Africa, with many cases going undetected until it was too late. But in a lab a few thousand miles away, a teenager was working to change that.
Olivia Hallisey, a 16-year-old from Connecticut, is the grand prize winner of this year’s Google Science Fair for developing an Ebola detection method that may eliminate many of the problems with the existing approach. The current tools and chemicals require constant refrigeration—often impossible in the regions most affected by the virus; they also take up to 12 hours to produce a diagnosis and cost about $1,000 per patient. Hallisey’s technique uses silk fibroin, which allows for room temperature storage. The diagnosis can take as little as 30 minutes and costs just $25.
“It’s basically a pregnancy test for Ebola,” Hallisey told Fox News. “The hope is to see this project to the end and see it being used to help people.”
She and the other winners were selected from a global pool of contestants ages 13 to 18. (Watch the video of the awards ceremony to meet some of the finalists.)
Last year, the same science contest put a spotlight on Pittsburgh when Mihir Garimella won in the 13 to 15 age category. The Fox Chapel Area High School student built a flying robot that can sense and avoid moving objects. The design was inspired by an invasion of fruit flies in Garimella’s kitchen; the teenager was impressed by the pests’ ability to dart away from his hand.
Google’s version of a science fair has a bit more to offer than the typical fluorescently lit show-and-tell in a campus auditorium. (Namely, the potential to win a $50,000 scholarship or an expedition to the Galápagos Islands aboard a National Geographic ship.) But even without the fanfare and high stakes, young people in Pittsburgh produce impressive inventions and designs every day.
Just look at Girls of Steel Robotics, a team of young women from all over Pittsburgh who build functional robots, which they enter into competitions. Their inventions include Ada, a recycling ’bot, and E.V.E., who can throw Frisbees.
Thanks to the Allegheny Intermediate Unit STEAM grants, public school students throughout the county have the opportunity to build all kinds of gadgets and equipment—or, in the case of Blackhawk High School, to fix them. Much to their teachers’ delight, students there have used a 3D printer to repair a tripod, a paper cutter, and a drill case.
At the Google Science Fair awards ceremony, the host said: “The lesson of the evening is there are a lot of brilliant kids doing a lot of amazing work, and the key is you have to get out there and try something. So for all you watching at home, what will you try in 2016?”
The Google Science Fair website provides a place to start. A nifty tool allows prospective participants to input their interests and ambitions, and up pops a treasure trove of articles and resources to get you started.