By Denise M. Roberts
This is the story of a budding career—a child’s relentless quest to find answers and solutions to global water issues. And it begins at a tender age, when most youngsters are more concerned about bicycles and video games, birthday parties and holiday festivities. I use present tense because, for the most part, this is only the beginning of Maria Elena Grimmett’s story. We can only guess at what the future holds, but her accomplishments thus far indicate she will be one of the water industry leaders who will help change the world in big and small ways.
As the water industry scrambles to address potability, scarcity, reuse and recycling, the best and brightest minds in water science are pushing forward to find solutions. A multitude of interdisciplinary teams are banding together into water consortiums (public and private) in an urgent attempt to address problems both human caused and naturally occurring. The many levels of water science, including manufacturing, regulation, distribution, testing, installation and many other aspects, now require a broader knowledge base than sales and marketing. Fact trumps slick presentations and ambiguous sales pitches. Consumers don’t want to be sold; they want to be informed to make the best choices economically and health-wise. And they are listening to the experts, the scientists, more than they did previously because the news about water is not good.
Back to the best and brightest minds. Who are they? How did they reach that pinnacle of respect and admiration? They are the product of years of education, training and curiosity not dulled by adulthood. They believe there is a better way to do everything; they just have to prove it to a huge audience. Their paths, for the most part, are filled with experience and challenges: school science fairs and competitions, supportive parents and teachers, demanding personal goals. The desire to make the world a better place hinges on finding their own special niche and claiming it for themselves. Water scientists are the product of cross-platform thinking in a realm of chaotic passions about what it takes to secure the global aqua-jungle, an entanglement of ground and surface waters, treatment plants, distribution systems and more recently, wastewater recycling and reuse. Many are the product of youthful idealism, unrestrained and unfettered by restrictions on their curious minds. Grimmett is just such a person.
A sixth-grader with a college mind
She was already called ‘The Little Scientist’ by the age of eight, a term of endearment coined by one of her elementary science teachers. That year, while in the fourth grade, Grimmett rejected hundreds of suggested science fair topics at The Weiss School in Palm Beach Gardens, FL, an accredited school for the gifted. Instead, she wanted to discover what creates the bubbles after hydrogen peroxide is poured onto a cut. Armed with methylene blue as an indicator and minced potatoes as a source of catalase, she proved oxygen was the culprit, but wasn’t satisfied until a flammable gas meter disproved emanation of hydrogen gas. Grimmett’s excitement at her school’s 2008 science fair was palpable, but she was devastated when her elementary school discontinued science fair projects in the fifth grade due to lack of teaching staff. Undeterred, Grimmett continued to perform science fair projects on her own at home, “for fun,” she said.
“Why does my bath water have a yellow color?” she wondered at the age of 10, later designing research to investigate the effectiveness of three different anion exchange resins to remove tannins from her groundwater in Jupiter, FL. Grimmett was the sole entrant from her elementary school at the Maria Elena Grimmett, Future Water Scientist By Denise M. Roberts In September 2012, ninth-grader Grimmett, a Broadcom MASTERS Finalist for the second consecutive year, describes batch adsorption and desorption findings for sulfamethazine by Macronet MN250 at the National Geographic Society Building in Washington, DC. At the national competition, she was awarded First Place in Mathematics. Photo courtesy of The Society for Science and the Public. Grimmett’s 8th-grade school photo, courtesy of The Weiss School. Water Conditioning & Purification February 2013 2009 Palm Beach County Science and Engineering Fair, capturing first place in the Environmental Science section, the youngest in the division. While at the fair, another student’s project caught her eye describing the presence of pharmaceutical contaminants in the Florida Everglades. Grimmett became determined to find a solution. Her journey into scientific water research had begun. Months of background research convinced her that better remediation methods were needed and she was shocked to learn that modern water treatment plants aren’t completely effective in the removal of pharmaceutical contaminants from wastewater. “There has to be a better way!” she exclaimed.
Her first obstacle was the inability to test for pharmaceutical contaminants at parts-per-billion concentrations. Several local research labs had already denied Grimmett access to sophisticated testing equipment, such as liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry. Sixteen years of age was the established minimum they explained, an inflexible requirement because of federal funding regulations. Seeking a viable analytical testing alternative, Grimmett cajoled her father into canceling a day and a half of work and made her way to WQA Aquatech in Orlando, March 2010. The only young girl in a pink sundress on the exhibitor floor, she met with innumerable industry professionals, including ResinTech’s Frank DeSilva and crew, Dow’s William Lloyd and Purolite’s team led by Jacob Brodie, and discussed her intent to remove parts-per-billion range pharmaceutical contaminants from groundwater utilizing synthetic adsorbents. At one point, a prominent industry consultant told Grimmett to abandon her idea to use synthetic adsorbents and instead recommended activated carbon, which had known adsorption performance for a wide range of organic contaminants. After due consideration, the 11-year old rejected his advice, later explaining: “Science is not about testing what is already known to work, but is about testing the unknown.” She made dozens of contacts, secured free samples of synthetic adsorbents from multiple manufacturers and had one consulting company offer her a job in October 2016, when she turns 18!
A meeting with a scientist from the Scripps Research Institute provided Grimmett with the analytical breakthrough she needed—Enzyme Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA) kits provide accurate pharmaceutical concentrations as low as 50 parts-per-trillion and, most importantly, can be performed by a middle-school student without a university research lab. Sulfamethazine, a leading veterinary antibiotic given to cattle and swine to promote growth, soon became Grimmett’s leading choice for investigation, since it is excreted by livestock in an unmetabolized state, has high soil mobility, slow degradation and has been found to contaminate private wells. She commandeered her home’s garage, dining room table and master bathroom, turning them into her private research lab. Column screening experiments in 2011, evaluating four different Purolite hypercrosslinked adsorbents, confirmed the effectiveness of Macronet MN250 for sulfamethazine removal in aqueous systems. Batch adsorption experiments in 2012 soon followed, with Grimmett customizing methods (which appeared in a 1991 US EPA technical resource document) intended for soil scientists. She found MN250 to have high adsorption capacity for sulfamethazine and minimal desorption in distilled water, making it a promising adsorbent for sulfamethazine removal from contaminated groundwater, a heretofore unpublished result.
Grimmett’s hard work has paid off. She is now a two-time, consecutive (2011 and 2012) top 30 national finalist in the prestigious Broadcom MASTERS science talent search for middleschool students, winning First Place in Mathematics in 2012. In December 2011, eighth-grader Grimmett describes the capacity and rate of sulfamethazine removal by Macronet MN250 to a judge at the Palm Beach Regional Science and Engineering Fair in West Palm Beach, FL. She was awarded First Place in Environmental Science for the third consecutive year and Best-inShow. Photo courtesy of Palm Beach Regional Science and Engineering Fair. In February 2010, sixth grader Grimmett touts the effectiveness of Purolite’s TANEX and ResinTech’s SBACR anion exchange resins in the removal of tannins from groundwater at the Scripps Research Institute CELLebrate Science exposition held in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Photo courtesy of Scripps Research Institute, Jupiter, FL. In March 2008, fourth-grader Grimmett creates oxygen bubbles by mixing hydrogen peroxide with minced potatoes and positively identifies the gas with a methylene blue indicator. Photo courtesy of Karen Grimmett. Water Conditioning & Purification February 2013 Grimmett is also a two-time, First Place Winner in Environmental Science at the Florida State Science and Engineering Fair (2011 and 2012), receiving the Best-in-Fair Grand Prize in 2011. At the Palm Beach Regional Science and Engineering Fair, she is a fourtime, consecutive First Place Environmental Science winner (2009 through 2012), two-time, Best-in-Show winner (2011 and 2012) and, in 2012, received a perfect score from all judges, the first in the competition’s history. Although still too young to apply for the Stockholm Junior Water Prize competition, she received nominations from both state and regional science fairs in 2010, and again in 2012. In honor of her research achievements, Minor Planet 27410, discovered by the Linear Project of MIT Lincoln Laboratory, with an orbit between Mars and Jupiter, was named Grimmett in 2011 and is recognized by the International Astronomical Union. Culminating three years of work, her middle school research, Removal of Sulfamethazine by Hypercrosslinked Adsorbents in Aquatic Systems, was recently published as a featured article in Journal of Environmental Quality (JEQ), January 2013, a peer-reviewed scientific journal. To the Editor’s knowledge, she is the youngest author to publish original research in JEQ since its inception.
Looking to the future, Grimmett describes her plans for ongoing research in 2013 and 2014 to optimize the use of adsorbent MN250, “in a more environmentally relevant water matrix. The best part,” she explains, “is getting a science fair judge who is a water expert—that’s where the real fun begins.”
A Young Scientist to Watch
Dear JEQ Readership:
There are many rewards associated with serving as the Editor of the Journal of Environmental Quality (JEQ), but I have experienced very few that compare with the pleasure associated with writing this Letter from the Editor introducing you to a new young scientist that you should keep an eye on.
On 7 September 2010, I received an email from ASA Editor-in-Chief Dr. Warren Dick containing a PDF file of a manuscript that he enthusiastically asked me to read. The manuscript had been sent to Warren from an 11-year-old, seventh-grade girl who had conducted experiments concerning pharmaceutical adsorption on resins, prepared a manuscript, and wished to have the manuscript considered for publication in JEQ. In Warren’s words, “The manuscript is quite good, and the amazing thing is that this is a single-author paper.”
I was astounded when I read the manuscript. I tried to picture an 11 year old with extremely limited laboratory resources conducting experiments and preparing a manuscript that surpassed the majority of papers that I have read over the years from graduate students and young scientists from universities with state-of-the-art laboratories. I passed the manuscript to one of JEQ’s technical editors, Dr. Baoshan Xing, without indicating the age of the author, and asked for Baoshan’s impression. Baoshan commented that even though the manuscript was not up to JEQ rigorous standards, it had potential for publication after revision and additional analyses. When I informed Baoshan of the author’s age, he was equally as impressed as I. We agreed that with some minor mentorship and guidance, this work could be brought up to JEQ standards. Baoshan recommended Dr. Hui Li, an Associate Editor for JEQ, as a mentor. After nearly 18 months of diligent and persistent work with minimal resources, the research was submitted to JEQ on 29 May 2012 and accepted for publication on 28 August 2012. During the review process, only the Technical Editor and I knew the age of the sole author; the Associate Editor and reviewers were completely unaware.
It is my sincere pleasure to introduce this remarkable young scientist, Maria Elena Grimmett from Palm Beach Gardens, FL, to the environmental science community. Maria is the youngest scientist to publish in JEQ. It is every young scientist’s dream to publish their research. Maria has realized a dream that most scientists first achieve at an age twice that of Maria’s. Maria has all of the qualities needed to become an exceptional scientist: enthusiasm, persistence, conscientiousness, curiosity, intelligence, and diligence. I have no doubt that she will have an impact in science throughout her life. I invite you to read her published paper titled “Removal of Sulfamethazine by Hypercrosslinked Adsorbents in Aquatic Systems” (this issue).
Dennis L. Corwin, Editor, Journal of Environmental Quality