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Dasia Taylor didn't expect to become a nationally recognized scientist at 17 years old.
The Iowa student has dedicated her life to equity work, from serving as one of her school district's diversity equity leaders to participating in her high school's Black History Game Show club.
But when her junior year chemistry teacher at Iowa City West High School, Carolyn Walling, was recruiting students for the Science Fair club, Taylor signed up, fascinated by the prospect of answering her own research question — and incorporating economic equity into science by trying to remove financial barriers to medical treatment.
Over a year later, she's seeking a patent for a creation she carefully curated in her high school chemistry lab: color-changing stitches that indicate when a wound is infected.
The key to her success? Covering the stitches in beet juice.
"I dabble in science," Taylor, who is now a senior, told CNN. "It's been an amazing experience because I've never done any research prior to this project."
Since beginning to compete on the science fair circuit in February 2020, her beet juice-coated sutures have won numerous regional titles. In January, Taylor was among the top 40 finalists from nearly 1,800 applicants in the Regeneron Science Talent Search, the nation's "oldest and most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors."
The accolades aren't what matters, she says. Now, she's focused on making sure the sutures actually help people.
"Equity work has my heart, and that's what I want to do for my career," Taylor said. "I do plan on continuing my research, and ensuring that this project is released and people actually get this discovery, and it will save lives."
She wanted to make new inventions equitable
Taylor's stitches are a remake of "smart sutures," stitches that use smart technology to detect when wounds become infected. Always looking through an equity lens, Taylor realized that this new technology may not be easily accessible to underprivileged populations that already struggle to obtain affordable surgical care. Around 5 billion people do not have access to surgical care worldwide, with 9 out of 10 people struggling to access basic surgical services in low- and middle-income countries, the World Health Organization (WHO) has found.
"I classify my research as where equity meets science," Taylor said. "The people who are really going to need (smart sutures) will not be able to afford it ... so I decided to take that and run with it and make something cost-effective."
Approximately 11% of patients who undergo surgery in low and middle-income countries experience surgical site infections (SSIs), WHO found in 2016. Taylor particularly wanted to help African women undergoing C-sections, as upwards of 20% of African women receive SSIs during such surgeries.
Her stitches operate using simple chemistry. While human skin is naturally acidic, or around a pH of 5, Taylor explained, infected wounds have a basic pH, meaning it's 8 or higher. A natural indicator — in this case, a beet mixture — can change color based on the pH of something.
Beets change color "very quickly" right around when skin's pH becomes basic, Taylor found, going from a healthy light purple to a darker magenta as pH increased — the "perfect" natural indicator, she said.
After creating variations of a beet concoction, Taylor combined the dye with the sutures to create an item that could detect infection at the correct pH levels, completing Phase 1 of her research by February 2020.
She excelled in competition
Upon taking the sutures to competition in February 2020, the invention was an immediate success. At her first competition, the regional Junior and Science Humanities Symposium, Taylor said she "dominated," taking home first place and numerous other awards.
Taylor credited her success in large part to Walling's help. Walling, who has recruited students for science fairs for around 10 years, told CNN this is the first time she's seen a student make it this far in competitions.
"The reason why she did as well as she did in my opinion is that she was just interested, like she just kept wanting to know why and how can this work and what can we do with it," Walling explained.
Despite pandemic limitations, Walling recalled that Taylor was determined to continue her research. She worked with administrators to use the chemistry lab in August, incorporating judge feedback from the previous season and beginning Phase 2 of her research.
Taylor also sought insight from University of Iowa microbiologist Theresa Ho, after realizing beets have antibacterial properties.
Upon reaching the top 40 in the Regeneron competition, the other finalists voted for Taylor to receive the Seaborg Award, allowing her to speak on behalf of the Regeneron Science Talent Search Class of 2021.
And her work has inspired others
Now that competition season has ended, Taylor's research has received extensive praise since entering the national and international science arenas.
Taylor recalled how an elementary teacher in Massachusetts asked their students to read about Taylor's work and write a paragraph about why she inspired them. Upon receiving a 24-page document from the teacher with all the students' thoughts, Taylor said she cried.
"I consider changing the world inspiring the next person, like if I get to inspire someone to go do something great, that's what success is in my mind," Taylor said.
While Taylor plans to major in political science on a pre-law track, she encourages anyone remotely interested in science to pursue it, saying, "If you're curious about something, research it."
In that spirit of discovery, Taylor has encouraged kids in her hometown to get involved with science, from hosting a kids science program with her local public library to holding Zoom discussions with elementary students. But Taylor isn't just inspiring kids; Walling said Taylor "inspires her" and anyone else she's around.
"She doesn't just push herself to be better, she wants everyone to be better," Walling said.
"It's just so amazing to see how I'm already changing the world in really just being myself and having fun and exploring my intellectual horizons," Taylor said. "I just never knew I was gonna do all of this at 17 years old."