Time Magazine recently published a list of the 30 most influential teens of 2015. Among those honored are social media stars, actresses from Game of Thrones and Modern Family, and the Jenner sisters (Kylie and Kendall).
Then there’s 17-year-old Connecticut high school student Olivia Hallisey, who invented a new way to test for the Ebola virus without refrigeration or electricity. It would be nice to think that Olivia is far more influential than some of the others on the list.
Olivia’s potentially life-saving invention, which has huge ramifications for rural areas in other countries most profoundly infected by the virus, won the grand prize at the Google Science Fair in September, an honor that includes $50,000 in scholarship funds.
Olivia began reading up on diagnostic tests. She found that many require electricity and refrigeration, both of which are in short supply in rural villages, and take hours or days to return results. Many patients get their diagnoses too late – once they are already gravely ill and have transmitted the virus to others.
“The best way to limit Ebola’s spread is if you can isolate someone before they’re contagious,” said Olivia.
She researched a silk fiber derivative that can keep proteins stable without refrigeration. Common tests like the ELISA, on which Olivia based her project, rely on mixtures of protein and water to trigger the chemical reactions that lead to positive or negative results. Typically, these solutions, known as reagents, need to be refrigerated. Olivia then used the silk derivative to make her reagents and found that the test performed just as well after one week with no refrigeration.
She then scrapped the ELISA’s plastic well-plate design and mounted test strips on a laser-cut paper card that is portable, simple to read, and returns results within 30 minutes.
“She did what I love to see and what I find so inspiring: She looked at what exists and then took a leap,” said Mariette DiChristina, editor-in-chief and senior vice president of Scientific American and chief judge at the Google Science Fair.
Her father, who drove her to and from Boston around 10 times so she could use a laser cutter Tufts made available.
“We would get up early some mornings, get to Boston about 10, use the laser cutter, and then run home so I could get to swim practice on time,” Olivia told Scientific American.
“It was a crazy experience, but you can’t turn down an opportunity like that.”