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These Lambert students designed a cheaper way to predict disease outbreaks – and beat out colleges for a gold medal
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Lambert High School senior Gaurav Byagathvalli, a member of the school's iGem team, or International Genetically Engineered Machine, uses an electroplater manufactured from a lighter and 3D-printed material. - photo by Alexander Popp

From their humble classroom laboratory, the Lambert High School iGEM, or International Genetically Engineered Machine, team has done the impossible, using ingenuity, passion and dedication to win big in a field that is stiff with competition from around the globe.

In 2018, the Lambert iGEM team tackled one of the world’s biggest problems — access to clean drinking water – by providing a simple, cheap way for people anywhere in the world to analyze their water and at the same time predicting outbreaks of waterborne diseases before they happen, using materials that can be bought easily or made cheaply by a 3D printer.  

“Most of our projects are always oriented around a principle called frugal science,” said Lambert senior Gaurav Byagathvalli. “It’s all about trying to make science more accessible, more affordable for everyone across the world.”

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Lambert High School sophomore Abby Bell works in a classroom with the school's iGem team, or International Genetically Engineered Machine, on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019. - photo by Alexander Popp

Byagathvalli said their project came together after members of their group visited the Dominican Republic for a service project in April 2018 and saw that many people were either drinking water without knowing what was in it or were spending an enormous percentage of their pay on bottled water.

According to Byagathvalli, their design parts are found in a common Bic lighter to create a handheld electroporator, which can shock a cell with high voltages and allow them to modify its DNA. He said that for about 25 cents they can achieve the same basic result as a $10,000 commercial electroplater.

“Most people aren’t lucky enough to have that and you definitely aren’t going to have world health organization’s carting these kinds of things out into the field,” said Lambert Science Chair, Brittney Cantrell.

Cantrell said that the other parts of the team’s hardware consist of a hand-spun centrifuge and a sample testing container that was designed and 3D-printed. More importantly, she said that the team also developed several pieces of software that can test water samples, alert aid workers if a disease is found and predict outbreaks before they happen using a complex dataset.

“If you can proactively detect something, you can send resources where they’re actually needed before major damage is done,” Cantrell said.

She said that their model of predicting cholera outbreaks in Yemen based on rainfall, climate and survey data from population centers allowed them to make predictions that were 87 percent accurate within two to eight weeks.

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Lambert High School's iGem team, or International Genetically Engineered Machine, competed against hundreds of different international high school and collegiate teams at the annual iGem Jamboree, held in Boston, Mass.

To showcase their radical new approach to treating devastating diseases like cholera, the team competed against hundreds of different international high school and collegiate teams at the annual iGem Jamboree, held in Boston, Mass.

By the end of the jamboree, the local teens walked away with a gold medal for their project and four “Best in the World” awards given at the yearly event for presentation, measurement, hardware and integrated human practices.

“I think one of society’s norms is to tell you that at a young age, you can’t accomplish as much as when you can when you’re older,” said another Lambert senior and iGEM member Ellie Kim. “iGEM has shown me that, even when you’re so young … it doesn’t matter as long as you have the passion and the drive and the motivation for it.”

Over the last six years, the Lambert iGem team has been inspiring students just like Kim and Byagathvalli, leading them to various degree programs and research positions, according to group advisor Janet Standeven.

Standeven and Cantrell said that despite the team’s resounding successes, they’ve encountered a number of monetary, time and spatial challenges that other schools and universities wouldn’t have.

With the student’s passion and dedication to a lot of late nights, early mornings and weekends, they are sure the students will excel and come out on top.

“It’s these kids and their researches that are going to have us solve these very serious global problems,” Cantrell said. “And it’s incredible to watch them grow from squirrely 14-year-olds to incredibly well-spoken seniors.”