Winchester Thurston freshman wins $20K in science competition
So much for an allowance. Aria Eppinger made $20,000 through a national science fair.
The Squirrel Hill teenager took home one of four top honors this month at the sixth annual Broadcom MASTERS competition, a national science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) contest for middle schoolers.
Her topic: studying the effects weed killer residue has on human gut bacteria.
Eppinger decided to explore the issue last year as an eighth-grader at Winchester Thurston when she learned there was a possible association between head injuries and an imbalance in beneficial and detrimental gut bacteria.
“When I was younger, I suffered several concussions, so I was really interested in the imbalance,” said Eppinger, 15, now a freshman at the Shadyside school. “I wanted to look at potential causes.”
Gut dysbiosis, an imbalance in beneficial and detrimental gut bacteria, is associated with diseases such as diabetes and cancer. Eppinger said research indicates that food exposure to the weed killer Roundup can cause gut dysbiosis in animals. Eppinger’s findings indicated Roundup could slow the growth of beneficial bacteria, throwing off the beneficial-detrimental bacteria balance in people.
“I wasn’t expecting the results to be so clear,” she said. “It was impressive to see the extent to which (Roundup) affects beneficial vs. detrimental bacteria.”
Katherine Karberg, a scientist with Monsanto, which manufactures Roundup, said she had not seen details of Eppinger’s experiment, so she couldn’t comment on the findings. She said in a statement that glyphosate, the primary ingredient in Roundup, has been through regulatory evaluations spanning four decades, and the “overwhelming conclusion of experts” was that glyphosate can be used safely according to label instructions.
“Regarding glyphosate and gut bacteria, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recently reviewed studies of gut microbes and glyphosate and concluded there was not a concern about health,” she stated.
Paula Golden, president of the Broadcom Foundation, called Eppinger’s project and presentation “unparalleled.”
“From the minute I met Aria, it was clear to me that she has a very strong sense of self,” Golden said. “She articulated for the judges — and really all of us — a clear, values-driven STEM advocacy that was unparalleled in the competition.
“She is wise beyond her years and will have an enormously successful career.”
Graig Marx, science department chair and STEM and research coordinator at Winchester Thurston, called Eppinger and her work unique.
“She is very special,” Marx said. “Aria is really into science and its effect on human beings. She’s really interested in helping people.”
Although Eppinger was enrolled in a class that afforded her the opportunity to foster and grow her experiment, she completed the majority of the seven months of work outside of class. Marx said Eppinger’s passion has inspired a STEM change within the school, including the purchase and use of 3D bioprinter.
“Without her and her uniqueness and inspiration, I’m not sure we would have been interested,” he said.
Eppinger’s work earned her several awards, including first place in the medicine, health and microbiology category at the Pittsburgh Regional Science and Engineering Fair, Best Intermediate Project and a Carnegie Science Award.
She was selected as one of 30 finalists in the Broadcom MASTERS competition. After a week of presentations from the finalists in Washington, D.C., she was honored with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Award for Health Advancement.
“The other projects were phenomenal,” Eppinger said. “I was always hoping I would be one of the 30 finalists. That was my goal. I wasn’t expecting to win.”
This isn’t her first time in the national spotlight. In 2012, Eppinger received $5,000 from billionaire Warren Buffett after her business idea, Shine So Bright, bested more than 3,000 youth competitors in Buffett’s nationwide Grow Your Own Business competition.
Shine So Bright was a craft kit that allowed children to create light-up clothing. Although she had hoped to mass produce the product, Eppinger said it didn’t work out.
“I pitched it to a few companies, but no one bit,” she said. “I probably could have made it work if I didn’t have school.”
An “A” student and self-described foodie, Eppinger said she plans to use her winnings for college and sees herself in a STEM-related field, specifically biostatistics. In the meantime, she said she will continue to pursue the data uncovered in her experiment. She hopes others will continue in her footsteps.
“STEM can have a big impact on the world,” Eppinger said. “Young, future scientists, engineers and mathematicians, if they are looking into doing a project, they should. I would like to encourage others to get involved in science fairs.”
Francesca Sacco is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.