BANGOR, Maine — For a high school science student, winning the Stockholm Junior Water Prize is like winning the Super Bowl.
That’s how longtime science teacher Cary James described the latest laurel won by former student Rebecca Ye, who will attend Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis this fall.
Ye was already in exclusive company as one of 50 students to be chosen to represent their respective states in the annual competition. Now she’s representing the entire country.
“I’m still floating up there wondering if it’s a dream I’m going to wake up from,” Ye said Monday during a rare break from activities at Girls State on the Husson University campus. “I thought it would be so cool if I could just get into the top eight and have my paper published.”
The 17-year-old Bangor High School graduate was in St. Louis for the ceremony announcing her as the United States’ winner of the 2010 Stockholm Junior Water Prize for her research paper titled “Nanoparticle-amplified immunosensor enables excellent sensitivity in rapid detection of viable E. coli O157:H7.”
If your eyes are still glazing over from that title, Ye’s work combines the sciences of microbiology and nanotechnology to create a biosensor capable of rapidly identifying strains of the pathogenic bacteria E. coli.
“Originally, she worked with Dr. Vivian Wu and graduate students at the University of Maine in the lab on a food science project to detect E. coli O157:H7, the same strain that contaminated a lot of produce and has been in the news recently,” James said. “I just tried to bridge the gap between food and water so she could adapt her work to this competition.”
It has been a whirlwind week for Ye, who went from a three-day, expenses-paid trip to St. Louis for the finalists’ ceremony to a weeklong stay at Girls State.
“This really is a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” said James, a chemistry teacher for 25 years, the last 11 at Bangor High. “I think for a science student, this is the equivalent of the Super Bowl for a high school kid.”
And for a high school science teacher?
“Um, the same,” he said with a chuckle. “It truly is amazing what she’s done.”
Scientists can already test water samples for bacteria such as E. coli, but Ye’s method is a much quicker process.
“This allows us to detect its presence even in small amounts,” Ye said. “With this you can get a positive test in six hours to a day as opposed to one week with previously existing methods.”
The Stockholm Junior Water Prize is considered the world’s most prestigious youth award for water-related science projects.
“I thought Becky had a fantastic project and that she’d do well, but I never dared to think she’d actually win,” said James. “To think she’s the national winner, I’m still stunned.”
Ye, who credited UMaine graduate student Xiao Guo for invaluable help with her work, is the third Bangor High student in the last four years chosen to represent Maine in the national competition.
Anne Marie Lausier (2009) and Jennifer Rowe (2007) also represented Maine in the national contest and were each one of eight students picked to have their papers published, but Ye is the first to win it.
“We couldn’t be more proud of Rebecca. It’s a great accomplishment and credit to her and her family,” said Bangor High School principal Norris Nickerson. “She’s the only student from Maine to accomplish this.
“Cary was in this morning talking about it and just can’t come off cloud nine. You never expect something like this to involve someone from Maine.”
Nickerson said it’s quite a feather in the cap of the school, which gets a lot of publicity for its athletics but is no slouch academically, either.
“In fact, we were recognized by Newsweek again as one of the top 1,600 schools in the country, and that’s a credit to the educators and students we have here at Bangor High School,” Nickerson said.
Ye receives a $3,000 cash award and an all-expenses-paid trip to Stockholm, Sweden, to compete against national winners from more than 30 other countries for the international honor during World Water Week, Sept. 5-11. She also has the opportunity to present her research to thousands of water quality professionals at WEFTEC 2010, the Water Environment Federation’s 83rd annual technical exhibition and conference in New Orleans in October.
After Girls State winds up, Ye will be back in the lab, refining her method in an effort to fine-tune her presentation for Stockholm.
“I’m probably going to try to optimize it even more for lake water by making it more specific and maybe even adapt it for use with wastewater treatment,” she said.
James, an Orono resident originally from Berkshire County, Mass., receives a $1,000 prize and an all-expenses-paid trip to Stockholm, and Bangor High will get a $1,000 grant toward enhancing water science education.
James, who was the only Maine teacher to receive a Siemens Foundation Award earlier this year for achievement in advanced placement science, attended the St. Louis ceremony along with Ye.
“I was sitting there with my buddies from Missouri and Hawaii, and we always joke about it being the big schools and charter schools from the big states that win, and then they announced Maine,” James recalled. “We just about came out of our shoes. I’ve got to tell you, it’s a dream.”
The daughter of mother Bingbing Li Ye, the lab manager for Dr. Wu at UMaine, and father Jay, a Bangor pathologist, Ye would like to become a doctor and is interested in specializing in dermatology.
“It was so eye-opening to be part of this whole thing,” she said. “The most exciting thing is being able to be together with some people who are just as passionate about this research as I am.”