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This High Schooler Invented Color-Changing Sutures to Detect Infection

In the country’s oldest science fair, 17-year old high schooler Dasia Taylor submitted a surgical suture that changes colors to warn of possible infections.

This invention, aimed at helping surgery patients in Africa detect infections before they become serious, elevated Dasia into the 40 finalists of the national Regeneron Science Talent Search.

The sutures are the perfect solution to a problem which Smithsonian Magazine summarizes—where not only are post-surgical infection rates typically higher in Africa, but expensive, smartphone-based infection early warning systems aren’t practical in many African countries where basic cell phones are widely used, but not smartphones.

Beginning her project back in 2019 in her chemistry class at Iowa City West High School, the process from theory to practice ended up winning Dasia several regional science fair prizes.

Her method uses beetroot, famous as any cook knows for turning everything red and purple. The pH of our skin is acidic and averages at 5, while an infected wound raises that pH to a level of 9, and as it turns out beets change color from candy apple red to deep purple as the pH level of its environment grows.

“I found that beets changed color at the perfect pH point,” Taylor tells Smithsonian. “That’s perfect for an infected wound. And so, I was like, ‘Oh, okay. So beets is where it’s at.’”

After concluding beets were where it’s at, the next step was to find which material held the dye from the beet juice in while also fulfilling the natural requirements of suture thread. A cotton-polyester blend eventually proved to be the ticket.

After five minutes of infection, the red suture began to turn purple, suggesting patients would be aware of infection immediately, perhaps even before being discharged from a hospital.

While outside of the top ten, Dasia’s sutures won her $25,000, as well as the Seaborg Award, given by the 40 finalists to whichever student most embodies the spirit of their class. Taylor was also given the honor of speaking on behalf of the Regeneron Science Talent Search Class of 2021.

“I have so much school pride because when somebody in our school does something great, they’re celebrated to its fullest extent,” says Taylor. “And being able to be one of those kids has been so amazing.”

Curiously enough, Taylor sees her fortunes elsewhere, and wants to study political science at Howard University, before becoming a lawyer when her time at high school comes to an end.