OGDEN — Mercedes Randhahn was playing in a soccer game when her mom got the call that Randhahn had made it to the top 30 in the Broadcom MASTERS, a national science competition for middle school students.
“She knew for like an hour afterwards,” Randhahn said. “She’s really bad at keeping secrets, so it was kind of killing her not to tell me.”
Randhahn’s mom had arranged for representatives from the Society for Science and the Public to call her back after the game, while they were getting ice cream.
“It was just a big fiasco where I was ... crying and screaming,” Randhahn said, describing her reaction when she got the call, “and then like hurrying and writing down everything they were saying. And then I ... ran around the block two times screaming. It was really exciting ... that’s how I got all my energy out.”
After placing first at the state-level science fair, Randhahn was nominated to participate in the national Broadcom MASTERS, which a press release describes as the “premier Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) middle school competition.”
She was up against 2,348 applicants across the country, all of who were in the top 10% of middle school participants in state science fairs affiliated with the Society for Science and the Public. These students represented 47 states, D.C. and two U.S. territories, according to a press release.
Randhahn was pretty happy when she learned that she’d placed in the top 300 — the top 13% of the group — in early September.
She wasn’t expecting to make the top 30, which places her in the top 1% of an already distinguished pool.
Randhahn’s project is one of particular significance in Utah and across the country, but it was motivated by a personal experience.
A friend of Randhahn’s, who she had gone to elementary school with, died by suicide during the summer after the girl’s freshman year, after overdosing with medications that weren’t properly disposed of.
After that happened, Randhahn started noticing the billboards along the freeway about the opioid epidemic, which led her to research the issue.
“I wanted to see what I could do to fix that,” Randhahn said.
She wanted to find a safe way for people to dispose of opioids and potentially “deactivate” them — change the structure of the molecule so they’re no longer harmful — at home, using common substances that are readily available.
People often don’t properly dispose of their medications because it’s inconvenient, Randhahn said. It takes time to drop them off at a police station or pharmacy — and not all pharmacies have a place where people can safely dispose of medications.
People often resort to flushing medications down the toilet, which is problematic because water treatment facilities can’t fully cleanse the water, Randhahn said.
If people keep the old medication in their cupboards, that increases the likelihood of an accidental overdose, suicide or a child finding and taking the drugs, she said.
The summer before Randhahn started eighth grade (she’s now in ninth), she started her project by searching for a substance that is similar to opioids but accessible for a 13-year-old to use in a science project.
“I chose to use caffeine because it’s available to teenagers, and it has a similar chemical structure,” Randhahn said.
Caffeine is an alkaloid salt. So are nicotine and heroine.
Randhahn had arrived at this choice on her own, but she ran it by a chemistry teacher at her school — Saint Joseph Catholic High School — and he said he thought it was a logical choice that she could test.
Then she used a process called thin layer chromatography to determine if the chemical structure of the caffeine changed after being exposed to other substances.
She used household vinegar and activated carbon, and her results from many repeated tests indicate that the chemical structure of the caffeine is changed by exposure to both of these substances.
She imagines that this knowledge, if it’s tested on real opioids and has the same results, could be used to create a packet that people take home with them when they pick up a prescription from the pharmacy.
The packet would contain activated carbon. If a person had leftover medication, they could drop it in the packet, add some vinegar and the chemical reaction would change the chemical structure of the opioids, making them inactive for human use and safe for the environment. Then the packet could be thrown away.
As a top 30 finalist, Randhahn won $500 and a trip Washington, D.C., in late October where she will compete against the other finalists. Winners will receive several monetary awards, one as high as $25,000.
Randhahn doesn’t just want community leaders to learn about and support her project as a way to solve the opioid epidemic. She says she wants them to understand the value of scientific research in general.
“Public leaders should support research and ... fund it for things that look like they have future promise,” Randhahn said, “and especially for women because we need that type of gender equality if our world is ever going to be better.”
“This year ... 60% of the finalists were female,” Maya Ajmera, president and CEO of the Society for Science and the Public, “but even more extraordinary is three of the young women are from Utah. There’s something going on in the air or water or something ... Congratulations to the state of Utah. This is an extraordinary achievement.”
The other two winners from Utah are Sidor Clare and Kassie Holt, who both attend Beehive Science and Technology Academy, a charter school in Sandy. They did a project on building bricks out of the soil on Mars in the event that humans one day build a base there.