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Contest Winner Tests the Nanotechnology Waters
Luo tested for toxicity.

Jingyuan Luo knows the hype about nanotechnology. She's just skeptical.

The senior at Hamilton High School in Chandler, Ariz., won the 2007 U.S. Stockholm Junior Water Prize for her research on the aquatic toxicity of nanoparticles. The contest is the industry's most prestigious youth award for water science research. Though Luo doesn't dismiss the strides of nanotechnology–listing sunscreen and stain-resistant fabrics among the latest nanochemical products–she thinks it is time to take a closer look at the environmental effects of nanoparticles.

The contest is the junior version of a more prestigious Stockholm Water Prize. The junior contest promotes the development of aspiring scientists, nurturing talented students and helping them focus their interests. Luo was already interested in nanotechnology but still had questions.

"Nanoparticles are going to be a large part of our lives," says Luo, who conducted most of her research at Arizona State University under the supervision of a professor mentor. "I thought this was a really unique chance to study the ecological problems with nanotechnology, to understand it better." She says there is everything to consider, since very little research has been conducted on the topic, especially in water environments.

In a nano-nutshell, Luo found that nanoparticles are more toxic than regular-sized particles, particularly in the long term. Her detailed analysis traces the impact of two types of nanoparticles, carbon fullerenes (C60) and zinc oxide nanoparticles (ZnO), on two aquatic organisms, a green algae species (Chlamydomonas reinhardtii) and a freshwater crustacean (Daphnia magna). Both the algae and the crustacean suffered from varying degrees of nanoparticle exposure during the first two days. The organisms' cell death and damage was increasingly pronounced over a longer 20-day observation period, making a case for the prolonged toxicity of nanoparticles. Click here and here for an excerpt of Luo's test results.

Algae made a logical test organism, says Luo, since its role at the bottom of the food chain could be of consequence to the entire ecosystem. Though her bioaccumulation tests were inconclusive at this stage, she is not ruling out that nanoparticle toxicity could affect a longer food chain. Luo's project prompts several research leads, including bioaccumulation and the exact mechanisms and levels of nanoparticle toxicity. Click here for an excerpt of Luo's discussion.

Judging for the contest is comprised of two parts: an independent review of the papers by judges followed by a personal interview. Chuck Wolf, one of 18 judges at this year's competition and a senior associate at Phoenix, Ariz.-based Malcolm Pirnie, Inc., says the interview phase is where you can tell the difference between the basic "show-and-tell" papers and the more meaningful student-led projects. "Jingyuan Luo's project was very independent in analysis," says Wolf. "Even though some of her results were unexpected, she took it to the next intellectual level and said why that might have happened. She also pointed out what items still remain to be researched."

Wolf says that projects are judged not only on the student's breadth of research, but also on the topic's relevance to the real world. "Her topic is certainly cutting edge," he says of Luo's work. "Nanotechnology is starting to be a big industry opportunity. She was able to structure an approach so we can see how the results could be used on larger issues."

In all, 48 students from 43 states competed in this year's national contest, held in Phoenix, Ariz., June 21-23. As winner, Luo gets $3,000 and an all-expense-paid trip to Stockholm, where she will represent the U.S. at the international Stockholm Junior Water Prize contest during World Water Week, August 12-17. Her school was awarded a $1,000 grant for water science education. Four finalists, Jordyn Wolfland of Bethesda, Md., Keely Goodgame of Logan, N.M., Yupeng Liu of Charleston, S.C. and Kelydra Welcker of Parkersburg, W.Va., were also given $1,000.

The Alexandria, Va.-based Water Environment Federation, the primary organizer of the contest, will publish Luo's paper along with the finalists' and other selected projects in the Stockholm Junior Water Prize Journal. It is set for publication later this year and will be available to all WEF members.

Mohamed Dahab, president of the WEF, recognizes the greater contribution of the prize. "All in all, the real contribution of the SJWP to the science and engineering fields is in the human factor. It's in the development of young scientists."

For students such as Luo, the impact is evident. She plans to study biological sciences, perhaps with a focus on environmental sciences, next fall at Rice University. She is still undecided about what subject of research to pursue.



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