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The Next Generation of National Medal Laureates?

Students from across the country were honored in the nation’s capital for the final White House Science Fair of the Obama Administration – and some are on the heels of National Medal Laureates.

During a ceremony at the White House this month, President Barack Obama described the importance of learning from the work of others, while recalling a century-old prediction from Albert Einstein that was only recently shown to be true.

Although Einstein decades ago predicted the existence of gravitational waves, it took years of additional work and progress from scientists after him to solidify his work.

“And that’s the thing about science –– you don’t always cross the finish line yourself,” Obama said. “You may have a hypothesis, a theory, and then people build off of it, and it’s like you’re running a race and you’re passing a baton. Everything that we’re working with today is based on some young person like you 10 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 or 300 years ago, who were asking themselves the same question.”

Obama used that story to emphasize the importance of persistence and collaboration, as he spoke to a group of scientists and innovators – the sixth group he’s honored at the White House for their work in an annual celebration.

This year, the White House showcased the work of Olivia Hallisey, who developed an inexpensive diagnostic test for detection of the Ebola virus. Neil Davey presented his early cancer detection technique, which also provides genomic-level details of the cancer and can aid in treatment. Sydney Lin, Krishna Patel, and Isha Shah shared their design for a sustainable, waste-free municipal city. And Deepika Kurup touted her solution to the lack of clean water: a solar-powered technology that removes bacteria from water, making it safe for people to drink.

But these medical, technological, and scientific advancements aren’t the work of Ph.D. students, professors, or world-renowned researchers. They’re the ideas of everyday students from across the United States –– some as young as 9 years old –– who were invited to display their work this month at the sixth and final White House Science Fair of this administration.

“There’s nothing that makes me more hopeful about the future than seeing young people like the ones who are here,” Obama said. “Whether you’re fighting cancer or combatting climate change, you are sharing in this essential spirit of discovery that America is built on.”

Some of the students presented original and trailblazing inventions. But others, such as 18-year-old Deepika Kurup and 17-year-old Olivia Hallisey of Connecticut, made groundbreaking advancements in different areas by building on the foundational work of scientists and innovators who came before them.

Before presenting her work at the White House, Hallisey won the Grand Prize at the 2015 Google Science Fair, noting that 90 percent of Ebola victims will die without early diagnosis and medical intervention.

“Current detection methods are expensive, time-consuming and utilize complex instrumentation and chemicals that require uninterrupted refrigeration,” she said in her project summary. Maintaining that constant refrigeration can be problematic, if not impossible, in parts of the country where infrastructure is weak, and the disease outbreak is most common.

“What was shocking to me was how quickly it was spreading, and how it seemed to target an area and then grow exponentially within that area,” Hallisey said at the White House. “I wanted to find a way to limit that spread.”

So Hallisey set out to develop a diagnostic test that was less expensive, less time-consuming, and did not require constant refrigeration. The result was a paper-based, water-activated detection card that changes colors based on the outcome. Hallisey’s design was a fraction of the cost of current detection kits –– at $25, compared with $1,000 –– and can also be used in detection of HIV, Lyme Disease, and certain cancers.

American scientists have found other ways to demonstrate the power of paper-based diagnostic testing. Helen Free, who won the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2009, developed a “dip-and-read” test (with her husband Alfred Free) that measured blood sugar when dipped into a urine sample. The simplicity and inexpensive nature of the test paved the way for self-testing for diabetics.

We are thankful for all of Helen Free's contribution!

Obama repeatedly emphasized that theme of discovery and collaboration throughout his remarks at the ceremony.

“By following the trail of your curiosity wherever it takes you, you are continually adding to this body of knowledge that helps make us a more secure, more prosperous, and more hopeful society,” he said. “Science has always been the hallmark of American progress.”

Deepika Kurup, an 18-year-old student from New Hampshire, saw an opportunity to tackle an existing challenge during her family’s annual trips to India. After seeing children drinking unsafe water, then-14-year-old Kurup began thinking of ways to more effectively and inexpensively purify water for the more than 1 billion individuals who don’t currently have access to clean drinking water.

Nearly a century before Kurup began developing her water purification method, Abel Wolman, the “father of clean water” developed the most basic approach to water sanitation: adding just enough chlorine to water to kill any harmful bacteria present, but not enough to make the water unsafe for humans to drink.

Like Wolman, Kurup’s sanitation method involves exposing the water to chemicals meant to kill off any dangerous bacteria –– but it takes the purification process a step further. Kurup found that two chemicals –– titanium dioxide and zinc oxide –– when exposed to sunlight, can kill harmful bacteria present in contaminated water.

“It is just an amazing opportunity to be recognized by President Obama,” Kurup told WMUR during the White House Science Fair. “I am grateful that he's recognizing not only Super Bowl winners, but also Science Bowl winners.”

Obama encouraged local communities, schools, and universities to help encourage the next generation of scientists, innovators –– and perhaps National Medal Laureates –– to “push the boundaries of what’s possible.”

“We are counting on all of you to help build a brighter future, and for you to use your talents to help your communities, and your country, and the world,” he said. “We will be with you every step of the way.”