When Meeha Amirthalingam puts her mind to an issue she won’t stop.
That’s why the now 14-year-old Sugar Land student was named one of the top 10 students in the nation for using her brain to tackle a global issue in the “Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.”
She is the only student from Texas to make it this far in the annual competition and she will learn the outcome in October. The annual competition invites students in grades 5-8 to submit a video describing a unique solution to an everyday problem for the chance to win $25,000 and an exclusive 3M mentorship.
“Science is like magic. You use your brain and your curiosity to solve so many problems,” explained Amirthalingam. “You look at an issue that concerns you around the world and try to make it better. There are fifth to eighth graders trying to save the world.”
Amirthalingam, now a Travis High School freshman in the Global Studies Academy, has always been fascinated by water conservation, so for her 8th-grade project she developed a toilet flushing system that uses both fresh and recycled water to reduce water consumption in the home. Part of the process uses recycled “gray water” that normally just goes down the drain.
She was a Sartatia Middle School student when she first submitted her technique. After her older sister, 18-year-old Layaa, made it to the state level as a merit winner as a middle school student, Meeha submitted ideas every year but this is the first idea to garner national attention.
“When I first saw the call from 3M, I was like, hi, and she said hi, you are a finalist. I was so excited. I didn’t think I’d make it this far. Maybe like a state winner. But national, wow,” she said.
In previous years she submitted ideas for a cooking drone and a recycling shower system to the 3M competition.
While researching ideas on water conservation, she learned of the water shortage crisis in Cape Town, South Africa, where the water scarcity was so intense there was a countdown showing when they would run out of water. So households were limited to no more than 50 liters of water per day which meant, among other things, no gardens and two-minute showers.
Travels with her family to southern India also brought home the awareness of water conservation, said her mother Nappinnai Natarajan.
“Water scarcity is too much. They fight for water and she saw that at an early age. Maybe that planted the seed. They showed kids in Africa with water that is brown color. Brown water is not good,” said her mother.
So it was no surprise when her daughter said she wanted to find a way that households could do their part to make a difference.
“I can’t imagine a life without water. Taking a 30-minute shower used to be no concern to me but what happened in Cape Town could happen to any of us. It will happen if we don’t do something daily. In India, they are trying to save water. In California, they can’t even water their lawns. Toilets use 30 percent of the household fresh water so I thought this is the way to go,” Meeha said.
She started her research in February. Using water from washing machines and showers, called gray water, that water is collected in a gray water chamber and used to supplement the freshwater used to flush the toilet.
She created an animated video showing the mechanical pumping system. Other systems are out there but they use electrical sensors. Amirthalingam found a way to make it completely mechanical. Toilets use six liters of fresh water, her system would save five liters of fresh water.
“Mine is completely mechanical and anyone can use it once it is installed,” she said.
Her confidence is impressive to her mentor, scientist, and 3M product development specialist in the consumer healthcare division, Jen Hanson. Hanson holds a Ph.D in material science and engineering and loves her job that allows her to “solve problems and make awesome stuff.”
She was a perfect mentor match for the bubbly and confident Amirthalingam.
“You know she was already more than 60 percent there. I’m just giving some guidance,” said Hanson.
They meet weekly via Skype and in a recent conversation, the student sat in her living room facing an open computer explaining to Hanson her methods to tests specific theories about her system.
As Hanson queried the teen about how she would test a piece of the equipment or why she used a certain material, Amirthalingam explained how she went to home improvement stores and discussed pieces of the toilet bowl fixtures with workers and considered using materials from other departments. Using math and fractions, she explained how she determined how wide to open the drain to get optimal results. She kept copious notes, which Hanson told her to make sure she included in her final presentation, as researchers like to see the data.
When Hanson said she was sending her a box of items to help her with her experiments including beakers, gloves, and other scientific goodies, her eyes lit up and a huge grin spread across Amirthalingam’s face.
“I just love science,” she said afterward.
The top 10 finalists each receive $1,000 and the chance to do a summer mentorship with a 3M scientist. They also get a trip to St. Paul, Minn., to compete in the Final Event in October and a chance to attend a taping of a Discovery Network show.
The Grand Prize winner receives $25,000. Amirthalingam said she would use her winnings for a college fund, and to donate to a water conservation organization.
Her father Raja Amirthalingam is an engineer and her mother a volunteer with the Fort Bend Independent School District. As she is just entering her freshman year at Travis High School, she does not know what she wants to pursue in college.
But she does have dreams about the next 15 years, as she understands using her brain can be lucrative. In 15 years she wants to be “a patent-holding engineer.”