By Kate Rider
On January 7, 2021, Society for Science named senior Melanie Quan a top 300 scholar in the 80th Regeneron Science Talent Search. The talent search is considered to be the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science and mathematics competition for high school seniors. Quan was selected based on her commitment to academics, exceptional research skills, innovative thinking, promise as a scientist, and more specifically, her work to reduce plastic pollution.
Quan first became concerned about microplastic pollution after reading a 2017 study, “The study conducted tap water samples from over 160 countries around the world, and found that 83% of tap water worldwide contained some form of microplastics,” Quan said. “Microplastics really concerned me because they have the potential to concentrate and transport toxins and chemicals up the food chain, and eventually onto our dinner plates.”
In order to combat the growing problem of plastic pollution, Quan sought to create an alternative plastic material, “The plastic I created is made from the waste products of algae-based biofuel production. It is compostable, water-soluble, serves as a natural fertilizer, and exhibits similar physical properties to conventional petroleum-based plastics.” Quan has been able to change the bioplastics’ physical properties to become more flexible or more rigid and has been able to increase the water resistancy of the bioplastics so its uses could range from utensils to plastic linings to single-use packaging. “I’ve also identified different algae species that could be used to create plastic films to replace PFAs [a chemical found in many plastic products], which have been in the news recently,” Quan continued.
“My research focuses on algae’s potential as a novel source of biopolymers for plastics, as well as evaluating its sustainability in the production and disposal of the plastics,” she explained. Her research was divided into three phases: identifying an optimal algae species, comparing the tensile strength of all the plastics, and evaluating the plastics in their various routes of disposal.
Quan’s success brings positive change to the Las Lomas community. Due to her tireless work, Las Lomas will receive $2,000 to use towards STEM-related activities. When thinking of the ideal grant distribution, Quan adds, “Hopefully they can use it to get more lab supplies that they can distribute to the students to make distance learning more accommodating for labs.”