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A 16-year-old took home $75,000 for her award-winning discovery that could help revolutionize biomedical implants

A girl in a blue shirt with long dark hair stands in front of a science fair poster
Grace Sun took home the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair's biggest prize for her work on OECT.

Society for Science

  • Grace Sun, a 16-year-old from Kentucky, won $75,000 for her research on biomedical devices.
  • She took home the top prize at the ISEF — the "granddaddy of all science fairs."
  • Her work on organic electronic devices aims to make medical implants safer and more effective.

Grace Sun can't drive yet. Unlike many 16-year-olds, getting her license hasn't been her top priority. Instead, she's been busy working on a project to revolutionize biomedicine.

The high schooler from Lexington, Kentucky, developed a new technique to improve organic electronic devices. The technology could someday make medical implants significantly more compatible with human bodies and far less invasive. It could also lead to new early-diagnosis tools for a wide variety of diseases.

On Friday she won $75,000 for her research.

"They called my name. I thought they got the wrong person. I was like, is there another Grace up here?" Sun told Business Insider backstage at the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) awards ceremony.

Her hands were trembling and a huge smile beamed across her face. Just minutes before, rainbow confetti had exploded behind her on stage in front of hundreds of her peers, while lights flashed and peppy music boomed over the audience. She suddenly held a trophy in her hands.

"I'm in disbelief because of how good everyone else is," she said.

Despite the exhilaration, though, Sun easily slipped into a calm and authoritative demeanor to explain her research, which focused on organic electrochemical transistors, or OECTs.

"They have performance issues right now," she said of the devices. "They have instability in the body. You don't want some sort of implanted bioelectronic to degrade in your body."

But OECTs have huge potential. Compared to other devices made of silicon, they're soft and flexible. That makes them a better fit for heart and brain implants.

"They're so much more accurate, their speed is higher, their performance is higher because they consider signals in the body that previous electronics haven't considered. They're also safe because they're made of organic materials," she said.

She hopes that her work improving their performance can be a first step to commercializing them and getting them into wide use, within the next two decades.

Sun won the Olympics of science fairs

ISEF is the world's biggest pre-college STEM competition, run by the Society for Science. It's like the Olympics of science or the "grandaddy of all science fairs," said judging chair Christopher Gould.

Nearly 2,000 students spent the week in Los Angeles attending talks, mingling, and defending their research to judges. The event doled out $9 million in awards this year — its largest purse yet. But Sun took home the biggest sum with the $75,000 George D. Yancopoulos Innovator Award.

"This was our number one project, without a shadow of a doubt," Ian Jandrell, a judging co-chair for the materials science category at ISEF, told BI about Sun's research. He oversaw hours of discussion among the materials-science judges.

"It was crystal clear that that room was convinced that this was a significant project and worthy of consideration for a very top award because of the contribution that was made," he said.

Research at ISEF is not peer-reviewed, so it's not held to the standard that studies published in journals like Nature or JAMA must meet. Instead, ISEF encourages students to learn about the scientific process by doing it themselves and defending their work.

Jandrell said the judges were impressed by "the sophistication and the diligence" of Sun's research and her ability to explain it and respond to questions on the spot.

"It's the whole package," he added.

Long days in a university lab

A girl in blue shirt with long dark hair holds a small OETC device that looks like a small clear square with white inside
Grace Sun holds an OECT device that helped her win the ISEF science fair.

Chris Ayers/Society for Science

Sun has been working on her project for over six months. It took long hours, and much of it needed to be done in a lab at the University of Kentucky. The devices she worked on were tiny, small enough to fit on your thumb.

For a few weeks, she left school three hours early to work in a lab for another five hours. Luckily, her teachers were understanding about why she needed extensions on some of her assignments.

Sun engineered a new technique to improve the devices' performance and take them closer to commercial use. In the research that snagged the five-figure award, Sun tried "doping" the OECTs — introducing chemical impurities to see how they affected the device's electrical properties — with a series of organic salts.

She found that one salt, called tetrabutylammonium chloride, was especially effective because it improved the device's amplification abilities, sensitivity, signal-to-noise ratio, and switching speed.

These qualities are important because they improve overall performance, which could one day help create biomedical devices capable of detecting early hints of disease in your body's biochemical makeup.

The salt that Sun tested improved amplification performance by 97% and switching speed by 77%, Sun found. "These are significant numbers," Jandrell said.

Sensitive OECTs could detect proteins or nucleic acids that correspond with the disease long before traditional symptoms appear. Sun imagines OECTs embedded in clothing to monitor swea or used to accurately test blood-alcohol levels before you drive.

Eventually, OECTs could lead to new technologies that replace invasive implants like pacemakers.

As for Sun, she sees a future for herself in chemical engineering to help improve medicine.

"Hopefully I can make some sort of commercializable breakthrough, like what I'm trying to do now with these devices," Sun said. "If possible, I do want to start a business so that I can get them into the real world in industries to impact more people directly."

Read the original article on Business Insider