Journey to find safe and sustainable paint

Journey to find safe and sustainable paint

Journey to find safe and sustainable paint

Hey there! I'm Rathan, a 9th grader at Mayo High School in Rochester, MN. I'm deeply passionate about all things STEM-related. With four science fair participations under my belt, I find it incredibly enjoyable to tackle real-world issues. And going beyond the science fair, I'm now also part of the Science Olympiad, with my efforts geared toward Anatomy & Physiology and Chem Lab (It's my first year, so fingers crossed for success!). From regional to national competitions, my story is about how I found joy and meaning in learning science. 

First off, a massive thank you to Amino Labs - none of this would have been achievable without them! As a freshman, I may not possess the same level of experience as the veteran upperclassmen when it comes to the realm of science fairs. But don't let that change your mind!

Let me take you on a journey that started back in 6th grade when my family was renovating our basement. At that time, we needed to pick a paint – and after much deliberation at Sherwin-Williams, we settled on a lovely light turquoise. Curiosity led me to dive into the world of paints. I soon discovered that they were harmful not only to people but also to the environment.

You see, paints emit toxic gasses known as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), which can lead to lung cancer. They also contain heavy metal pigments like cadmium, cobalt, and chromium – all known carcinogens. Painters are 30% more likely to develop cancer, including mesothelioma. This revelation sparked my desire to make an eco-friendly paint alternative that is kind to painters. But first, I had to lay some groundwork with a base project during that 6th grade year. I genetically engineered E. Coli bacteria to produce pigmented proteins using the Engineer-it Kit from Amino Labs. This gave me magenta-colored bacteria - establishing a foundation for future projects.

Fast forward to 7th grade when I embarked on a smaller project: testing various iPhone bacterial colony counting apps to identify the best one out there. The process was more fun than I imagined and introduced me to using A.I. with biotechnology . 

By 8th grade, it was time to level up! I decided to expand on my grade 6 project with the mission to bring the ultimate bio-paint into existence. To do this, I used the Amino Lab’s Extract-it Kit to get the magenta pigment out of the engineered E. Coli. From there, I was able to mix the pigment with a commercial paint binder (Liquitex). This created a tangible substance ripe for experimentation! I put my bio-paint up against commercial standards under different conditions: heat (37°C, aka body temperature), cold (20°C), wetness (with daily water drops), and regular UV exposure (through sunlight). For two weeks, I observed the contest and discovered that my bio-paint was on par with its commercial counterpart, making it such a superb short-term alternative (visually speaking), for up to a year and a half. 

So far, my projects have been recognized with awards, like the Gold Award (for top 5% project) and the Seagate Rising Star Award at the Minnesota State Science and Engineering Fair. However, it's not the awards that fuel my passion. What keeps me going is knowing that I'm close to uncovering something truly remarkable. This innovation could protect painters and countless others from cancer while also preventing further harm to our environment.

This year, I'm setting my sights on achieving an ambitious goal. Imagine a 100% bio-based paint. Made from genetically engineered E. Coli bacteria and a casein binder, which is derived from milk proteins! Casein traces back to the ancient Egyptians, and there's definitely a reason it has stood the test of time. My plan is to put this groundbreaking innovation to the test by assessing how well it holds up to last year's variables: heat, cold, dampness, and UV (sun) light. I have a hunch that it'll perform very well, offering remarkable real-world uses and potential.

To conclude, I've got some valuable advice for those of you embarking on or continuing your science fair journey. First and foremost, select a project that genuinely captivates your imagination. I can already hear you saying, "Hey, I'm drawing a blank here; I can't think of anything!" Trust me, I've been there too. What you need to do is merge your past experiences with ideas from completed science fair projects. Take my experience as an example: I investigated available paints. read about the ones used in my house. And delved into articles on NYT and CNN about global pollution caused by paints and dyes. You could even consider replicating a previous project (try checking out this post about biotechnology-related science fair ideas, or even going to Science Buddies) as a starting point. It will be easier to build from there. 

Photo: Rathan's pigment excerpt from his multi-award winning presentation

Now, on to my next piece of advice. Drawing from my personal experience and observations from older friends who participated in prestigious events like the International Science and Engineering Fair - ISEF: Projects that build upon previous work tend to excel. This means expanding on research, experimentation, and problem-solving over several years, with a growing desire to tackle real-world issues, is key. By real-world issues, I mean addressing pressing concerns that desperately need solutions. Anything from finding a breast cancer cure and overcoming melphalan resistance in multiple myeloma to developing sustainable bioplastics from seaweed.

Photo: a bioplastic kit made from made from non-petroleum sources (learn more)

In any case, these are just a few nuggets of wisdom I'd like to share with you. Make sure to keep your presentation formal and practice in front of a mirror. It really helps. Good luck on your science fair journey!

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