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Catching up with the Canadian Stockholm Junior Water Prize Winners

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This past May, the volunteer judges from the CSJWP selected "A Heavy Metal Extraction Process to Clean Contaminated Water Using Tannin-Embedded Biopolymers” authored by 16-year-old Emily Mah and 17-year-old Jazlyn McGuinty from Widdifield Secondary School in North Bay, Ontario to represent Canada at the Stockholm Junior Water Prize (SJWP). They spent the rest of their summer tailoring their project and creating two formats of posters to meet the SJWP competition requirements. I had the great pleasure of accompanying Emily and Jazlyn to the SJWP as the National Organizer for Canada in August. After a summer of getting to know both young women, I can assure you of one thing – if this is what the future looks like, we are safe. Last month I had the opportunity to catch up with them and reflect on their experience. 

Can you briefly explain your project and what inspired you to research that topic?
Our project is about using tannin-embedded biopolymer to extract heavy metals from contaminated water. We extracted tannins, an organic substrate, from oak leaves, and embedded them into an eco-friendly plastic called biopolymer. The tannins attracted the heavy metal ions, thus removing the heavy metals from the contaminated water. After this, the biopolymer could either be reused, or be left to degrade naturally into the earth. While researching environmental problems with our mentor Ms. Peterson, we came across the Ring of Fire. The Ring of Fire is a mining and smelting operation set to open in 2024 and is located in Northern Ontario. This 3.3-billion-dollar investment has the potential to be an environmental disaster and the surrounding bodies of water are likely to become contaminated by heavy metals. Heavy metals are toxic even at low concentrations and can cause nervous system damage, organ damage, reduced growth and development, cancer, and even death. Our solution is an environmental protection practice to ease the contamination levels in the surrounding bodies of water.

When you found out your project was selected to represent Canada at the world’s most prestigious water prize, what was your initial reaction?

Emily: I was very humbled and grateful to receive the email that we were selected to represent Canada. I had no idea what to expect after our essay was submitted, but when I found out, I was extremely excited. I was thrilled to be able to continue working on our project.

Jazlyn: Three hours leading up to the announcement, I was constantly refreshing my email, checking to see if we won. Every time I logged on, I felt a thrill of anticipation. After about the 14th time checking my inbox, I finally received the congratulatory email! I was so excited, happy, and immediately called my parents from school to tell them the wonderful news. I couldn’t stop smiling for the rest of the day.

Were you nervous about anything during your preparation for the SJWP?

Emily: Yes, I was nervous about creating our iPoster (a requirement of the SJWP). We had never made one before, so I was worried about developing it because it was such a large component of the interviews. I was also nervous about the judging, and whether or not they would ask difficult questions. It was hard to prepare for it because I had never presented at this level before.

Jazlyn: Making sure the presentation was the best it could be was the most nerve-racking thing when preparing for the SJWP. I was mostly nervous about preparing and conveying our information to the judges, since Emily and I both were at camps the week right before the trip. I was also a little nervous about the flight, because I had never flown without my parents out of North America before.

Once you arrived, they split you up and you had to room with other contestants from around the world, what was that experience like?

Emily: I think this was a really great idea. I became really close to my roommates, who were from Thailand and Cyprus, and I still talk to them regularly. We shared a lot of stories about our countries. I am really happy I got to stay with them because now I have friends from all over the world.

Jazlyn: I became very good friends with my two roommates! They were from Chile and Belarus, and we had so much fun getting ready together for the banquets, talking about current global environmental problems, and sharing information about our cultures.

What did you think of the other projects, did you have any favourites?

Emily: The other projects were phenomenal. Every single one was unique and has such potential to make a difference in our world. It showed me that our future is in great hands. The dedication and hard work that went into their projects was very inspiring. It is difficult to pick one favourite project, but one that stood out to me was Bole Pan’s project and he is from China. His project prepared activated carbon by using peanut shells and defect-rich MoS2. He synthesized it using hydro-thermal method, and then used it to address the freshwater crisis where he lives. I thought that this was unique because I had never heard of using peanut shells in any other projects.

Jazlyn: I thought that every single project was very creative, and it was obvious that so much time went into perfecting each one. One of my favourite projects was about using waste materials and solar power to address the problem of fresh water crisis. Bole Pan (James), from China, conducted research on this subject matter. When he explained it to me, I was quite amazed by his hard work and determination to solving this water problem.

You went through 3 different judging periods; can you share that experience?

Emily: For the first set of judges, I was really nervous and did not know what to expect. When they interviewed us, however, they were very friendly and less intimidating than I anticipated. They asked great questions about our project and also provided us with valuable feedback and advice on how to improve our project. After the first set of judges, I was not as nervous anymore, and I really enjoyed the opportunity to share our hard work with an international panel of judges.

Jazlyn: I was very nervous for the first judging period, as I didn’t know what to expect, but as each period passed, it got easier and easier. The judging period was broken up into two portions: a 5-minute presentation followed by a 10-minute question period. The question period was the hardest, as the international jury asked very difficult, thought-provoking questions.

You are both considering entering the medical field after graduation, any changes to your plan?

Emily: Working on this project helped me explore many different areas of science. I am still leaning towards medical school and becoming a physician, however this project definitely allowed me to expand my interests. For example, an undergraduate degree in bio-medical engineering is something I am definitely considering.

Jazlyn: For now, I would like to continue on the same path and pursue a bachelor’s degree in life science and followed by attending medical school. I hope to become a Pediatrician. However, I would still like to continue researching about ways to solve environmental problems in the future (as a side hobby).

We hear a lot of doom and gloom about the future did participating in the SJWP give you hope for what’s to come and what your generation is capable of?

Emily: There are a lot of negative concerns about the environment right now and many other additional issues in our world. Of course, this makes me very nervous about my future. However, when I met all the finalists, I realized that there are still people that want to make the world better and will do everything they can to make this possible. I believe if we can continue to support and empower more youth around the world, there is hope for what our generation is capable of.

Jazlyn: Going to Sweden and attending the SJWP has given me so much hope for the future. Everyone was very determined, motivated, and had such creative solutions to many of the world’s biggest water-related challenges. By coming together, we were able to expand our thinking and collaborate when discussing problems that our world is facing. I believe and hope that our generation will be able to solve these global problems, and that the future is in good hands.

What was your favourite part about attending the SJWP?

Emily: Meeting all the other finalists. I realized that this opportunity was about making lifelong friendships and networking with other like-minded people. Growing up in a smaller community in Northern Ontario, I had never been surrounded by so many people who share the same love for science as me.

Jazlyn: I thoroughly enjoyed being able to meet people from around the world. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to spend a week with like-minded individuals from over 30 countries; one that I will cherish forever. I am very thankful for being given this amazing opportunity to learn, grow, and work together with these amazing people, and hope to meet them again in the future.

Our sincere thanks to all of the other Canadian WEF Member Associations, the CSJWP Committee, the SJWP and WEF for making this all possible. Congratulations to Macinley Butson of Australia for winning this year’s SJWP and to all of the contestants for their exceptional achievements in water research. And because I know they’re reading, Em and Jaz, as you move forward in life, keep the words of the 2019 Stockholm Water Prize Winner Dr. Jackie King as the constant voice in your head, "Follow your heart and reach beyond your grasp.”

Thank you to Jacobs for sponsoring the 2019 Canadian Stockholm Junior Water Prize. For more information about the CSJWP, please visit sjwp.ca.