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WATCH | Top 300: Lakeside freshman a finalist in national innovator challenge

by Brandon Smith | September 15, 2023 at 4:05 a.m.
Anna Valdivia, a freshman at Lakeside High School, talks about being chosen as a finalist in the Thermo Fisher Scientific Junior Innovator Challenge on Thursday while on campus. - Photo by Donald Cross of The Sentinel-Record

Lakeside High School freshman, Anna Valdivia, was one of 300 students chosen nationwide, and the only one from Arkansas, as a finalist in the Thermo Fisher Scientific Junior Innovator Challenge for her research in antibiotic resistance.

The Society for Science selected the top 300 junior innovators from a pool of nearly 2,000 students from 49 states, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico, who applied to compete in the challenge.

Applicants were among the top 10% in their local science fairs, of which Valdivia took first place at the Ouachita Mountains Regional Science and Engineering Fair at Mid-America Science Museum last year.

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The final top 30 will be chosen Wednesday and travel to Washington, D.C., to compete for over $100,000 in prizes later this fall.

"To be honest, it's kind of like a surprise," she said. "I still kind of feel like it's not real because I didn't think I'd really get to this point. I thought it'd just be a cool little hobby and it wouldn't really get anywhere, but now that I'm in the top 300, I feel like this is what I want to do, like, with my life. I want to help people. I'm just really excited if (it does) eventually grow into something bigger and help a bunch of people."

The Thermo Fisher Scientific Junior Innovators Challenge, according to a news release, is the nation's premier science, technology, engineering and math competition that seeks "to inspire young scientists, engineers and innovators to solve the grand challenges of the 21st century."

Valdivia advanced with her project researching the extent of antibiotic resistance on local vegetables, trying to see if there are natural antibiotics in the hot springs. She said she chose the project due to so many deaths from antibiotic resistance around the world. Choosing three different types of vegetables from local grocery stores, she put the skin into Luria Broth, which is a nutritionally rich medium used for the growth of bacteria.

"Then I put that into a plate with LB agar and I put the Luria Broth -- I had the bacteria growing in it -- into the plate," she said. "And then after I did that, I put these antibody discs into the bacteria that grew to see how resistant they were to the antibiotics, and then I let that sit overnight and incubate so that it would grow and I could see what grew and what didn't grow."

Her results were kind of scary, she noted, as a lot of the bacteria was resistant, especially the penicillin.

"I'm guessing that's because it's the oldest, so bacteria has had more time to resist and figure out how to resist penicillin," she said.

The results showed that about 78% of all the bacteria she tested were resistant, which is "really bad, because so many people die from antibiotic resistance."

"I did not realize antibiotic resistance was that big of a deal until I started doing this project, and now I really want to figure out solutions to this problem because it's so big. People don't realize that it's super big," she said.

Her interest in the project started at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when, instead of risking going into the store to buy groceries, her family ordered them online.

"Even though we didn't go into the store, we still knew the groceries could contain viruses. My parents had us wipe and clean the groceries with antibacterial wipes or spray them with alcohol. My brain thought, 'How much are these wipes and soap really cleaning these things?'" she said.

Valdivia said she enjoys studying science because she wants to make a difference in the world and help save lives. Her passion for research came about naturally as her grandparents were chemists and her mother, Patrycja Krakowiak, who is a life sciences instructor at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts, was a grand prize recipient of the Henry Ford Innovation Nation Teacher Innovator Awards and an Arkansas state finalist for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

She calls her mother her "hero" and wants to follow in her footsteps.

"When I was younger and I was sick and I couldn't go to school, my mom would always take me to her school for me to stay there while I was sick," she said. "I would always see her doing these experiments with her students and I loved watching her do those. It was so fun. And then when we actually got to do experiments, I was in love immediately. I loved being in the lab that I was in and doing all these experiments and seeing results in different data and all that."

After completing her freshman year at Lakeside, she plans to finish high school at ASMSA before applying to Harvard University.

"I do want to be a pharmacologist where I can make medicines and design medicines to stop this antibiotic resistance," she said. "And maybe even work with CRISPR/Cas9 (gene-editing technology) where I modify the bacteria to where they forget how to resist the antibiotics."

  photo  Lakeside High School freshman Anna Valdivia stands next to her project entitled "Antibiotic Resistance Is Everywhere: Even on Your Vegetables" at the Ouachita Mountains Regional Science and Engineering Fair last year. - Submitted photo
  photo  The Lakeside School District sign is shown in front of campus. - File photo

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