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14-year-old scientist tackles antibiotic resistance

February 18, 2020

Kara Fan, 14, of San Diego, California, was named winner of the 2019 3M Young Scientist Challenge. Find out more about her project and how 3M is advancing STEM education for the next generation.

Kara Fan, 2019 Young Scientist Challenge winner

Science has always served as an exciting means for young people to make discoveries through experimentation. But in the 21st century, teen innovators are truly breaking new ground. They’re pursuing fresh ideas that improve lives in their communities and around the world. For a prime example, look no further than Kara Fan, winner of the 2019 3M Young Scientist Challenge. Fan, a 14-year-old from San Diego, California, invented a liquid bandage using nano-silver technology to reduce the risk of superbug infections caused by the overuse of antibiotics. She created the solution using lemon leaf and silver nitrate to effectively kill and prevent the growth of bacteria. Fan’s bandage was tested using the Kirby-Bauer method against Staphylococcus epidermidis, E. coli K12 and Bacillus subtilis on a Petri dish to measure the zone of inhibition (the circular area around the spot of the antibiotic use in which bacteria colonies do not grow). Finally, Fan mixed the nano-silver solution with a water-soluble polymer, PVP, to create the bandage properties when the liquid is sprayed onto skin. The result? An innovative liquid bandage that incorporates antibiotic properties.

Fan formulated the bandage to replace more commonly used over-the-counter antibiotic ointments and first aid treatments. With her invention, she hopes to reduce the overuse of antibiotics — a practice that can lead to drug-resistant infections.

Opportunity of a lifetime

two young scientist challenge participants working on a project together

Fan was one of 10 finalists in 2019’s 3M Young Scientist Challenge — a unique learning opportunity that allows students to further develop their scientific skills and work with 3M mentors to turn their ideas into reality.

Every year, 3M and partner organization Discovery Education invite students in grades 5 through 8 to submit a one- to two-minute video describing a unique solution to an everyday problem for a chance to win $25,000, an exclusive 3M mentorship and a surprise destination trip. Students are asked to align their projects with one of six topics 3M is actively focused on: health, safety, connectivity, environment, energy consumption or community. Ten finalists are chosen for their creativity, scientific knowledge, effective persuasion and communication skills, and presentation of their entries. Hundreds of students enter the challenge, now in its 12th year, every spring.

Mentors offer encouragement, make science fun

The 10 finalists spent three months working one on one with their mentors — all of whom are 3M scientists — via Skype and phone calls. Fan’s mentor was Sara Frisco, a 3M advanced product development engineer who works to bridge technologies within different 3M businesses and divisions. Away from the lab, Frisco is committed to helping kids like Fan learn about science and encouraging women to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

“Kara was an outstanding participant. She was committed to her project, worked very hard to bring it to life and was so excited about her invention, which has great potential,” says Frisco. “On a personal level, it’s incredibly gratifying to serve as a mentor for students in the 3M Young Scientist Challenge. I’m able to stoke their enthusiasm for science and help them figure out what their futures in this field could look like.”

Research shows that too many kids — usually around middle-school age — drop out of science, particularly girls. This is a problem because the world needs great scientists. 3M aims to inspire the next generation of scientists to keep them interested and engaged in the discipline. The 3M Young Scientist Challenge is a key component in helping the company make good on that objective.

Nurturing young scientists who then pay it forward

The 3M Young Scientist Challenge has awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in student prizes and has paired students with world-renowned scientists. 3M Young Scientist Challenge winners have gone on to be featured In Forbes magazine’s annual 30 Under 30 list, speak in front of members of Congress and at the United Nations, meet the president of the United States, and demonstrate their inventions on national programs such as ABC World News Tonight, Fox & Friends and The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

Fan, who wants to become a microbiologist, is eager to help tackle the problem of antibiotic resistance. “I want to show my invention of the nano-silver liquid bandage to more people,” she says. “I think it is important for greater numbers of people to be aware of the antibiotic-resistant bacteria crisis and to do something about it.”  

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