Seventeen-year-old budding scientist Smitha Ramakrishna found out the artificial sweetener sucralose, marketed as Splenda, might be invisible to the bathroom scale – but can pose a hefty danger to fish and other living creatures because it accumulates in the water supply after people excrete it. Pretty sweet discovery for someone who hasn’t finished high school yet!
Scientific American profiled the teenager as one of 40 finalists in the 2009 Intel Science Talent Search who gathered in Washington, DC, for the final judging rounds this week.
While she didn’t make the top 10, she still won a lap top computer and $5,000 for her talent, as well as recognition for her devotion to water safety and conservation.
Ramakrishna, a senior at Corona del Sol High School in Chandler, Arizona, was granted permission to study sucralose at Arizona State University – looking into various modern treatments such as bacterial digestion used in wastewater treatment plants.
She discovered sucralose was able to resist most treatments, breaking down into biodegradable molecules with extensive time and concentration of titanium oxide and ultraviolent light. Yet, her research showed few treatment plants bother with these methods. As a result, almost all the sucralose consumed winds up in the ecosystem.
Despite the controversies surrounding it, Splenda is wildly popular for weight control and is added to many brands of treats, sodas and cereals to satisfy the nation’s sweet tooth. In fact, one diabetic who is allergic to Splenda blogged that this finding explains why she continues to have reactions even though she tries to avoid the sweetener. “It turns up in everything,” she complained.
Ramakrishna became interested in water issues on a family trip to India when she was only 12. Her parents took her to an orphanage, where she says she was shocked by the poverty – the lack of tables and chairs for eating, for instance – but what struck her most is that these children didn’t even have access to clean water.
She tells Scientific American that upon her return home she founded AWAKE, an organization dedicated to water conservation (including the golf courses of Arizona) and education. Apparently, her cause has already made a dent, helping to get clean water to 3,000 kids in India through reverse osmosis and rainwater harvesting projects.
As far as the breakthrough study that made her a finalist, the young scientist says, “It’s opened a whole new door.” She plans to study the impact on fish when she attends college, perhaps at A.S.U. where her research continues.
Meantime, the student taking the top $100,000 prize in the Intel competition is Eric Larson, 17, of Eugene, Oregon, for his research project classifying mathematical objects called fusion categories. Eric’s work describes these in certain dimensions for the first time. More than 1,600 high school seniors from around the nation entered the search.