Dasia Taylor has juiced about three dozen beets in the last 18 months. The root vegetables, she’s found, provide the perfect dye for her invention: suture thread that changes color, from bright red to dark purple, when a surgical wound becomes infected, reports Smithsonian Mag.com.
The 17-year-old student at Iowa City West High School in Iowa City, Iowa, began working on the project in October 2019, after her chemistry teacher shared information about state-wide science fairs with the class. As she developed her sutures, she nabbed awards at several regional science fairs, before advancing to the national stage. This January, Taylor was named one of 40 finalists in the Regeneron Science Talent Search, the country’s oldest and most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors.
As any science fair veteran knows, at the core of a successful project is a problem in need of solving. Taylor had read about sutures coated with a conductive material that can sense the status of a wound by changes in electrical resistance, and relay that information to the smartphones or computers of patients and doctors. While these “smart” sutures could help in the United States, the expensive tool might be less applicable to people in developing countries, where internet access and mobile technology is sometimes lacking. And yet the need is there; on average, 11 percent of surgical wounds develop an infection in low- and middle-incoming countries, according to the World Health Organization, compared to between 2 and 4 percent of surgeries in the U.S.
Working with an eye on equity in global health, she hopes that the color-changing sutures will someday help patients detect surgical site infections as early as possible so that they can seek medical care when it has the most impact. Taylor plans to patent her invention. In the meantime, she’s waiting for her final college admissions results.
“To get to the Top 40, this is like post-doctoral work that these kids are doing,” says Maya Aimera, the president and CEO of the Society for Science, which runs the Science Talent Search. This year’s top prizes went to a matching algorithm that can find pairs in an infinite pool of options, a computer model that can help identify useful compounds for pharmaceutical research and a sustainable drinking water filtration system. The finalists also voted to grant Taylor the Seaborg Award, making her a spokesperson for their cohort.