Ten middle school children competed to be named America’s Top Young Scientist, presenting ideas of better treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, improving cancer detection, cleaning up oil spills and conserving water use.

The winner was Gitanjali Rao, a Colorado 11-year-old who presented an inexpensive system for detecting lead in drinking water that is based on currently available solutions. 

Rao, of Lone Tree, Colo., wins a $25,000 prize and is this year’s “America’s Top Young Scientist.”

“My solution addresses a core issue of speedy detection of lead contamination, allowing preventative action – and even saving lives,” she said in a video presenting her idea.

The idea uses the latest graphene nanotubes in a disposable cartridge made with atoms that have an affinity of lead and lead compound molecules. The cartridge is inserted into an Arduino-based signal processor coupled with a Bluetooth extension. Using a smartphone app, the resistance of water traveling through the nanotubes is measured – and the presence of lead would slow it down. (Rao’s idea has analogs in mobile phone-based microscopes, and also in the use of eye disease detection).

Each of the 10 finalists, including Rao, worked with a 3M scientist in developing their idea.

They also presented their concepts and prototypes to a panel of those scientists, and collaborated in two additional challenges during the course of the competition.

Other notable projects included:

  • A single lead molecule found in a natural compound found in produce could potentially be an Alzheimer’s disease treatment, according to the work of runner-up Rithvik Ganesh, from Plano, Tex.
  • A Lawn Bot, a water conservation machine made from starch-based plastic and powered by solar energy, was the development of Kathrn Lamp, of Legacy High School in Colorado.
  • Devin Willis’s grandfather passing away from cancer was the inspiration for his SLIDEMAP, a system to identify tumors as malignant or benign, by using 3-D printers’ motorized mechanism, microscopy and machine-based algorithms to produce diagnostics.

The competition is held annually, and is open to all U.S. students, grades 5 to 8. Read more about this year's participants here