A team from Clague Middle School was declared the state champion in the You Be The Chemist competition on May 11. They are one of only five teams advancing to the national finals.
The team members are 7th graders Tanay Panja, Kashvi Rai and Rudradip Ray, and 6th grader Sounak Debnath.
Ten thousand students in grades 5-8 from 266 schools across 42 U.S. states (as well as Yukon and Ontario in Canada) participated in the 2021 contest. The top five teams were selected for the You Be The Chemist finals.
The Chemical Education Foundation hosts the You Be The Chemist Challenge, a collaborative, multilevel student science competition that celebrates chemistry and elevates STEM careers. This year, state and regional competitions were combined into a single, virtual format to select national finalists.
Each team member competed in a virtual session where they answered multiple-choice and short-answer questions individually. The entire team collaborated to create a video based on a prompt exploring chemistry topics. This year’s theme was sustainability, and the Clague Middle School team researched and proposed a solution to remove PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which have adverse health and environmental effects) from milk to make the dairy industry sustainable.
Anita Gaenko, a freshman at Huron High School who has ranked in the state for You Be The Chemist in the past, taught the team members chemistry in the spring of 2020, and coached them before their competition.
“Even throughout the toughest parts of the classes, all of the students continued to interact with the content,” Anita said. “I’m proud of how far they’ve come since March. They have curious minds and a strong work ethic, and both of those are very important when learning science.”
Her chemistry students were originally a group of 10 from Ann Arbor, consisting of 5th-7th graders.
“She volunteered her time and did weekly experiments and lesson plans to cover the study materials with us,” said Tanay Panja. “We had a lot of fun learning these materials.”
The students formed a team of four to prepare extensively for the You Be The Chemist exam and also started their research project.
“We had resources in our community, and we got help from adults and Anita when we needed it.” Tanay said. “We started with coming up with the research idea, setting hypotheses, and doing research design, experimentation, data collection, writing and analysis.”
The team members divided the work between themselves based on interest and speciality.
“When we were researching and experimenting, we ran into several problems but we overcame them,” Tanay said. “For example, the alkalinity of the milk was very high after it went through the column. We solved this by first applying some water, to cleanse out OH- ions. We’re excited to go to Nationals, and hope to win the prestigious first place for the state of Michigan and Clague Middle School, which also comes with $4000 of prize money for the team.”
PFAS is called a “forever chemical” because it can accumulate in humans and the environment without degrading. The Food and Drug Administration has found dangerous amounts of PFAS in milk, which could cause fatal complications such as cancer.
“In our school, the water fountains were closed due to PFAS contamination,” said Kashvi Rai. “But PFAS can also contaminate milk due to bioaccumulation. So, we thought, could we use something to filter PFAS from milk? There was a process already used in filtering PFAS from water, so we tried to use this idea for milk.”
The entire experiment cost the team less than $50, and they loaned a chromatography column from a chemistry lab instead of purchasing the expensive equipment.
“I believe with further research, we can expand this idea on a commercial scale,” Kashvi said. “We could also continue using the same idea for removing PFAS from other food products. I’m glad that along with gaining chemistry knowledge, I was able to give back to the community with this project.”
The team’s solution uses a substance called anion exchange resin to filter the PFAS from the milk.
“To test if it worked, we used some special instruments, such as a pH meter and a spectrophotometer,” Sounak Debnath said. “I’m proud to be able to contribute to this project because water contamination is a big issue in Michigan, so it feels good to be able to fix some problems.”
The team hopes to use a special device called a Liquid Chromatography Mass Spectrometry machine to provide conclusive proof that the PFAS is removed from the milk.
“This is important as it is not only about the chemical in the milk, it’s about the long-term effect of PFAS in humans,” Rudradip Ray said. “In addition, about 80 percent of kids drink milk and if the PFAS levels get too high to the point where it is unsafe, then they will not have any to drink.”
The other major part of the team’s solution was the unchanged nutritional value.
“A lot of people might know that milk is enriched with calcium and vitamin D,” Rudradip said. “So ensuring that the milk is still nutritional is important. In our experiment, we proved that the nutrition is not changed.”
During the testing portion of the competition, each team member was asked 40 chemistry questions to complete individually, with about 15 seconds per question. The team score was the average of these individual scores.
“All of them worked equally hard to rank nationally,” said Priyanka Meharia, the team’s coordinator. “I am very impressed with the passion and value these kids put in their work. I hope this inspires more kids from Michigan to participate in the You Be The Chemist challenge.”