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From Toothpaste to Edible QR Codes: Students Present Inventions at STEM Festival

Addressing global issues, here are the research projects of five students from Indiana, Arizona, New Mexico, Georgia and Ohio.

By Joshua Bay | April 30, 2024

For Indiana high schooler Joshua Kim, the harm of counterfeit medicine hits home.

Kim, a 12th grade student at West Lafayette High School, discovered his dog, Joy, had heartworm disease and ordered medicine through an online pharmacy.

But the medicine Kim ordered would not only be ineffective but also aggravate Joy’s illness even more.

Motivated by his dog’s health scare, Kim designed a way for people to verify the authenticity of pharmaceutical products — by printing an edible QR code directly on the medicine.

Indiana high schooler Joshua Kim in his school’s lab working on his STEM project.

Kim was one of 150 student innovators in middle and high school who presented their inventions and research projects focused on solving key global issues at the National STEM Festival in Washington, DC.  

“There have been countless tragedies and deaths caused by either substandard, falsified or diverted pharmaceutical products,” Kim told The 74. “So I’m glad to have had this opportunity to raise more awareness of counterfeit medicine.”

Hosted by EXPLR and the U.S. Department of Education, student innovators were selected from an array of nationwide competitions, including the National STEM Challenge where more than 2,500 students submitted projects across six categories: Environmental Stewardship, Future Foods, Health & Medicine, Powering the Planet, Tech for Good and Space Innovation.

Here are five student innovators featured at the National STEM Festival:

Joshua Kim, 18

West Lafayette High School · West Lafayette, Indiana

Among more than 50,000 online pharmacies worldwide, Kim found only 3 percent operate and distribute medicine legally — contributing to the annual deaths of over one million people.

Kim said the measures most pharmacies use to reduce counterfeit concerns are “limited by low security,” such as only tracking medicine through its exterior packaging.

“It’s easy for medicine to be removed from their packaging…and dose level securities are either limited by the need for expensive technology or trained personnel,” Kim said.

 Indiana high schooler Joshua Kim presenting his project “Camouflaged Edible QR Code Bioprinting: Combatting Medicine Counterfeiting” at the National STEM Festival. (Joshua Bay/The 74)

“So this means patients at home do not have access to ways of verifying their medicine.”

Kim believes his edible QR code will allow people to ensure they are receiving genuine and legitimate medicine.

Ashley Valencia, 17

Harvest Preparatory Academy · Yuma, Arizona

Self-conscious about her crooked teeth, Arizona high schooler Ashley Valencia saw how expensive dental care can be growing up in a low-income family. But it wasn’t just her family that couldn’t afford dental care — many of her neighbors also struggled to afford it. 

Valencia, a 12th grade student at Harvest Preparatory Academy, channeled her insecurity to help students in developing countries who have even less access to proper oral hygiene products — by creating an affordable toothpaste and mouthwash using their native plants.

Arizona high schooler Ashley Valencia presenting her project “Novel Oral Treatments Infused with Native Plants Extracts to Improve the Oral Health in Developing Countries” at the National STEM Festival. (Joshua Bay/The 74)

“I always knew I wanted to do something in medicine so when I thought about different [research] topics close to me, I started to think about my past experiences,” Valencia told The 74.

“That’s why I created my own oral treatments that were easily accessible and affordable to people who might not have access to the things I had,” she added.

Valencia said she shared her research with public schools in the Philippines to address their students’ dental concerns.

At the festival, Valencia said she plans to travel to developing countries across South and Southeast Asia to share her oral hygiene products.

“Because I come from a school that doesn’t have a lot of resources…being able to attend the festival and present my research to all of the important people that were there was really exciting,” Valencia said.

Clarisse Telles Alvares Coelho, 18

New Mexico Military Institute · Roswell, New Mexico

From lion’s mane to king oyster, New Mexico high schooler and longtime vegetarian Clarisse Telles Alvares Coelho loves eating all types of mushrooms.

Coelho, a 12th grade student at the New Mexico Military Institute, said the misconceptions of mushrooms inspired her research project on their health benefits — particularly the abundance of a soluble fiber called beta-glucan.

New Mexico high schooler Clarisse Coelho presenting her project “Strengthening Defenses: Analyzing the Immunomodulatory Potential of Beta-Glucan in Ordinary Mushrooms” at the National STEM Festival. (Joshua Bay/The 74)

“I knew many people didn’t like mushrooms…but what if I was able to make them change their minds,” Coelho told The 74. “With beta-glucan acting in your immune system, our metabolism works faster.”

Coelho said she was “very surprised” to have the opportunity to present her project at the festival.

“It was such a great feeling because there was so much hard work and late nights put into researching this project…[so] it was so amazing to be recognized,” Coelho said.

Alicia Wright, 17

Rockdale Magnet School for Science and Technology · Conyers, Georgia

Concerned by our global carbon footprint, Georgia high schooler Alicia Wright discovered the majority of CO2 emissions come from the cement used in construction.

Wright, an 11th grade student at Rockdale Magnet School for Science and Technology, found a way to replace cement with mycelium — a type of fungi that can be transformed into a biodegradable construction material.

Georgia high schooler Alicia Wright presenting her project “The Effect of Natural Oils on the Strength of Bio-Bricks” at the National STEM Festival. (Joshua Bay/The 74)

“I was inspired by the complexity of mycelium and how fungus works,” Wright told The 74. “This will better the environment so that future generations can enjoy as we have.”

At the festival, Wright said the diversity of students presenting their projects with her felt “empowering.”

“It was very encouraging to see people with my skin color and gender presenting with me,” Wright said.

Haasini Mendu, 16

William Mason High School · Mason, Ohio

Ohio high schooler Haasini Mendu came up with a way to improve medication dosage for Parkinson’s disease — a disorder that causes involuntary body movement, often called tremors.

Mendu, an 11th grade student at William Mason High School, designed a wearable device that quantifies the number of tremors someone has and automatically sends the information to an app she created called “TremorSense.”

She said the information is processed through an “AI-based machine learning” filter to distinguish between tremor and non-tremor movements.

Ohio high schooler Haasini Mendu presenting her project “A Novel Parkinsonian Tremor Monitoring and Suppression System” at the National STEM Festival. (Joshua Bay/The 74)

Mendu said the opportunity to meet other students and build connections was her favorite part of the festival.

“It was very easy to make some friends and also learn about their very cool inventions and ideas,” Mendu told The 74.

“Having this recognition…feels motivating to continue working on my skills [because] there were so many people interested in what I’m trying to do with my research.”

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