Gifted 14-year-old scientist conducts research at Cornell

Could your discarded jack-o'-lantern be repurposed ... as a water purifier? That's what one young scientist has come to Cornell to find out.

Lauren Hodge, a 14-year-old science fair star from York, Pa., spent Nov. 7-11 in the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering's Soil and Water Lab, subjecting pulverized pumpkin to a barrage of tests to determine how the gourd reacts to water contaminated with hard metals.

Inspired by a Brazilian study that found banana peels were effective at removing copper and lead from wastewater, Hodge contacted dozens of colleges to see if any would be willing to let her into their labs so that she could carry out her ambitious school science fair project.

Todd Walter '90, M.Eng. '91 answered the call. An advocate of undergraduate research, the associate professor said he was happy to help an even younger scientist.

During her week in Riley-Robb Hall, Hodge worked closely with Kyle Delwiche, a graduate student who investigates how the agricultural herbicide atrazine interacts with and flows through soil.

Initial findings were not quite what the young scientist had expected, and she had to adjust her experiments in response to some results. But that is an important part of the process, Walter said: "In some ways that's more interesting than just finding what you think you're going to find."

Donning a white lab coat and goggles, Hodge seemed right at home in the lab -- which is perhaps no surprise as she has already won international accolades for her previous research and has spent her summers taking classes at York College and Penn State.

The high school junior was one of three girls who beat 10,000 applicants from 90 countries to take home top prize (a $25,000 Google scholarship and internships at Google and LEGO) at Google's first Global Science Fair in July.

In her award-winning experiment -- the first of its kind -- Hodge tested marinades to see how they would affect a carcinogen that has been found in grilled chicken. She found that lemon juice and brown sugar cut the level of carcinogens sharply, while soy sauce increased them.

Hodge, who is almost as passionate about music as she is about science, said she has competed in science fairs every year since she was in third grade, at the age of seven. She said she enjoys the knowledge and experience she has gained, the opportunity to collaborate on ideas and the potential to improve lives.

"Science has always been my passion ever since I was young. I was always inquisitive, and science helped me answer my questions," she said. "With each project I marvel at our incredible world."

Hodge's mother, Brenda, said she was grateful to the university for providing the opportunity.

"Cornell has been very generous and open, and it's been a great experience," she said. "We've been looking at colleges, and Cornell is definitely a good option."

Stacey Shackford is a staff writer in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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