Maria Elena Grimmett is only 14, but she already has a seven-page resume.
The teen has become a highly decorated scientist for her research on groundwater contaminants. She is also the youngest author to be published in the Journal of Environmental Quality. Out of 30 finalists, she was awarded first place in mathematics in the 2012 Broadcom MASTERS competition, the national science, technology, engineering, and math competition for sixth, seventh, and eighth graders.
She also has a planet named after her because of all of her research achievements. Minor Planet 27410, discovered by the Linear Project of MIT Lincoln Laboratory, which orbits between Mars and Jupiter, was named Grimmett in 2011 and is recognized by the International Astronomical Union.
And if that wasn’t enough, Maria Elena made history at the 56th annual Palm Beach County Science and Engineering Fair in December when all judges awarded her perfect scores—the first time that’s happened in the competition’s history.
Maria Elena specifically focuses on water, the contaminants in it, and how they can be removed. Currently, her focus is on the drug, sulfamethazine, and the ways that “Hypercrosslinked Adsorbent MN250” can remove it from groundwater.
“I really got hooked on science because the scientific method is a series of logical steps that can identify and solve difficult problems and help the world,” she told TakePart.
She first got into science in third grade, thanks to an inspiring teacher who was supportive of science projects. Maria Elena entered the school’s science fair for the next several years until it was discontinued due to a lack of staff and resources. But that didn’t stop her.
“There was only one science teacher in the entire middle school, and she didn’t think she could help all of us fairly, so that’s why it had to stop,” Maria Elena said. “I decided to continue on my own, leading me to the path I am on today.”
She was interested in the environment and water purification specifically because she had seen something curious happen at her house.
I live next to a golf course and I always saw them spray pesticides on the lawn.
“I live next to a golf course and I always saw them spray pesticides on the lawn,” she said. “I wondered if these contaminants could possibly get in the water table because naturally Florida has a shallow water table.”
The answer, she discovered, was yes. Maria Elena wanted to know more, but challenges occurred.
She needed a super-sensitive test for pharmaceutical contaminants at parts-per-billion concentrations. She tried to get into local research labs. But she was denied entry because of federal labor laws that stated she couldn’t enter a lab until she was 16. She didn’t give up.
Maria Elena attended water and other scientific conventions and eventually met a scientist from the Scripps Research Institute, who told her about ELISA tests that use antibodies and color change to identify a substance. That breakthrough allowed her to test pharmaceuticals and successfully finish her seventh-grade project. As one experiment builds on the other, Maria Elena’s constant research paid off.
In eighth grade, she discovered something that was an unpublished result: MN250, a Purolite hypercrosslinked adsorbent, has a high adsorption capacity for sulfamethazine and minimal desorption in distilled water. That means it could be a promising adsorbent for sulfamethazine removal from contaminated groundwater.
Her father, Dr. Michael Grimmett, an ophthalmologist, said that when Maria Elena first announced her scientific experiment plans in 2009, the family was split.
“My wife was very concerned that this extracurricular activity was going to take away from her regular studies and also interfere with summer vacation plans for the family since her experimentation typically consumes the entire summer,” Michael Grimmett told TakePart. “Maria Elena was just starting sixth grade at The Weiss School, which is an accredited school for the gifted, and the curriculum was challenging. Putting it mildly, my wife, Karen, was not enamored with Maria Elena’s plan.”
It was Maria Elena’s sincerity that ended up convincing her parents.
“I knew it would be a huge challenge, particularly since she had no lab supplies, no professional lab, no source of outside funding, no school coordinator to complete the regulatory paperwork for the Science Fairs, and no research mentor with expertise in water research.”
Michael Grimmett even cancelled a day and a half of his medical practice to drive his daughter to a national water convention in Orlando, Florida, for her to perform science fair background research. He also purchased laboratory-grade chemicals and ELISA testing equipment under Maria Elena’s direction for needed materials. The family has spent about $3,000 annually on her projects.
What’s next for Maria Elena, who is now a freshman at Oxbridge Academy of the Palm Beaches?
More experiments this summer, of course, and she also wants to represent Florida at the Stockholm Junior Water Prize national competition when she turns 15, her first year of eligibility. She also hopes to meet the Russian scientist, Dr. Vadim Davankov, who, as she says, changed the entire adsorbent industry with his invention of hypercrossedlink adsorbents. The two have already corresponded.
Her dream, she said, is that “water engineers will be able to remove sulfamethazine from water around the world.”
Using her research, of course.
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Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist whose work frequently appears in The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of two books. @SuziParker | TakePart.com