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ASU awards high school students’ solutions for Ebola, waste and pollution

high school students in professional dress at awards ceremony at ISEF

ASU, represented by the Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives, awarded high school students Olivia Hallisey, Ethan Novek, Robert Halfon, James Savoldelli, Hugh Salvoldelli and Drew Tomback at the 2015 Intel ISEF.
Photo by: Intel ISEF

June 04, 2015

Children are often burdened with the pressure of growing into our world’s future saviors. But as the recipients of Arizona State University’s Walton Sustainability Solutions Award recently showed, sometimes our children don’t need to reach adulthood to help solve some of society’s problems – like easy ebola detection or mounting trash heaps.

The six winners were announced last month during the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburgh, which is sponsored by ASU’s Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives. They were: Olivia Hallisey, 16, and Ethan Noveck, 16, each from Greenwich, Connecticutt.; Robert Halfon, 16, Delray Beach, Florida; and James Savoldelli, 17, Hugh Savoldelli, 17, and Drew Tomback, 17, from New York City.

Each will receive a prize of $2,500 to further their research and development.

“Our winners demonstrated how combining multiple disciplines can develop creative solutions to global challenges,” said Kelly Saunders, a program manager for the Walton Initiatives, a unit in ASU’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability.

One of those creative solutions came from Olivia Hallisey’s desire to find a way to help last year’s ebola outbreak. Her idea: develop a faster and easier way to test for ebola. Hallisey’s work resulted in a paper-based testing card that can lead to quicker to ebola testing, and treatment. The invention could be especially useful as conventional ways to test for ebola require refrigeration ­– something not always common in developing countries, where ebola has found.

“My own experiences have taught me to think globally, reconsider existing solutions and to always ask, ‘Why not?’ ” Hallisey said.

A similar mindset led James and Hugh Savoldelli and Drew Tomback to find a way to harness a type of bacteria that naturally breaks down polystyrene, or Styrofoam, into a byproduct for fuel, medicine and agriculture. Each year Americans dispose of 25 billion Styrofoam cups, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Many of those cups won’t decompose for hundreds of years.

“We wanted to develop a realistic solution that addresses the current stockpile while also creating an environmentally and economically sound recycling program,” the teenagers said.

Ethan Novek had the environment in mind as well when he invented a system that that captures carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and converts it into electricity, and the leftover carbon is then transformed into urea, a valuable fertilizer compound.

“Focusing on incremental improvements to what’s currently in existence rarely leads to a global solution,” he said. “The best way to solve a global challenge is to look where other people are not. Often, fields considered irrelevant to the global problem hold pivotal solutions.”

These different ways of looking at our problems are are why Saunders is so impressed with these award winners.

“They don’t see some barriers experienced researchers see; it frees them to develop out-of-the-box solutions. They are relentless and resilient in the face of challenges.”