OGDEN — St. Joseph ninth grader Mercedes Randhahn can perform under pressure.
This is not surprising for a young woman who taught herself chemistry the summer before she started eighth grade.
Randhahn competed against 29 other elite middle school science students from across the country and succeeded in taking second place for the STEM Engineering Award at a competition in Washington, D.C., in late October.
“You’re kind of put under a microscope for like ... three to four days as we’re being tested and challenged ... in almost every area of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). And so ... it’s extremely nerve wracking, but the other part is really interesting because ... your horizons are being broadened in the process.”
Randhahn brought home an iPad and was awarded $2,500 to use for STEM education summer camps. She hasn’t selected a camp yet, but she has her eye on the camps at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Perhaps more importantly, though, she made connections that may advance her research, like potential mentors who can connect her with lab equipment and materials that are hard to access for a 14-year-old.
Randhahn qualified for the competition, called the Broadcom MASTERS, by winning first in the Utah state science fair in the spring of 2019 for her project on opioid deactivation.
Her project centers on finding simple, accessible substances that will react with an opioid and deactivate it by changing the opioid’s chemical structure.
Randhahn’s goal is to change the opioid so it will lose its effects on the human body and so it can be safely thrown away without causing any harm to the environment.
Because of her age, Randhahn had to find a substitute for opioids, so she chose caffeine, which has a similar chemical structure.
While the results of her experimentation with caffeine are promising, to really make progress, she needs to be able to do experimentation with opioids, which she can’t access legally.
Randhahn also needs access to special equipment, which is usually only available at universities and other research labs.
At the competition, she made presentations to the public and government officials in addition to judges. A few people who might be able to open doors for her passed along their cards.
As she works to access the tools she needs, she said it’s fine if adult researchers build on her research.
“I’m okay with ... other people using my work,” Randhahn said in an October interview, “but I still want to be cited because it was my work that I did.”
Randhahn is committed to moving forward with the project, and she plans to take a break from entering science fairs this year to focus on her research, she said, though she plans to enter science fair competitions every year afterward.
While in Washington, Randhahn shared her concerns about STEM education and gender equality with her congressman, Rep. Rob Bishop.
“We didn’t seem to see eye to eye on the importance of gender equality and STEM implementation into education,” Randhahn said about their meeting.
Bishop’s office did not respond to a request for comment on these issues.
“With gender equality, I felt that it was an issue that needed to be addressed, and (Bishop) said that that was not a legislative issue,” she continued. “... In regard to STEM implementation into education, he thought that STEM had already been implemented into education to the fullest potential and it did not need to be improved upon, whereas I disagreed.”