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A high-schooler wanted infection-detecting sutures to be more accessible. She used beets.

Dasia Taylor, 17, was named a finalist in the 2021 Regeneron Science Talent Search for her use of beet extract on sutures to detect wound infection. (Society for Science/(Courtesy of Society for Science))
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The sutures were changing colors — quickly. First a light purple, then a magenta. This was what Dasia Taylor had hoped would happen.

Working in a lab in late 2019, Taylor was seeing her idea come to life.

She had the idea as a high school junior in Iowa after she read about sutures that use technology to detect wound changes and can sync to a smartphone.

Taylor’s first thought was: What about those who lack access to high-tech resources?

“That’s really cool, but the people that are really going to need these sutures and know when their wounds are infected, they won’t be able to afford this technology,” she told The Washington Post in an interview.

So she set out to create a more cost-effective solution for an honors chemistry research project. She found it in beets.

Taylor developed a surgical suture additive from the root vegetable’s extract that changes color when an infection is present. Human skin is naturally acidic, and “when our wounds are infected, our pH increases from five to eight or higher,” Taylor said. “I found that beets also change color at that point. So I put two and two together.”

In the lab, she observed that the beet-dyed sutures change “almost instantaneously” from that light purple to dark purple, almost magenta, when the pH level changes from healthy to infected, Taylor said.

“All of these things were happening, and I was like, okay, this is amazing, my guesses were right,” Taylor said. “This is really a game changer.”

According to the World Health Organization, 11 percent of patients in low- and middle-income countries who undergo surgery are infected in the process. Guidelines on surgical site infections from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that such infections complicated 1.9 percent of surgical procedures in the United States from 2006 to 2009, though it added that the number is likely to be an undercount.

Taylor first entered the research into Iowa’s regional Junior Science and Humanities Symposium in early 2020, where she “competed and dominated,” Taylor said. Earlier this year, the 17-year-old high school senior was named one of 40 finalists in the Regeneron Science Talent Search for 2021, a Society for Science program billed as the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors. The finalists, and subsequent top winners, were chosen from a group of 1,760 initial entrants.

Hala Mirza, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals’ senior vice president for corporate communications and citizenship, said she was especially struck by Taylor’s project because she remembered caring for her own mother after a hip surgery. Mirza’s brother, a doctor, noticed that the site looked infected. Their mother ended up needing the wound reopened.

“If he wasn’t a doctor, how would we know? It could have gone too far, and it could have been too late,” Mirza said.

Mirza said the competition not only reminds people about the “importance of scientific innovation,” it can encourage students to “continue to do this important work, which can lead to such important breakthroughs. That’s what it takes to really solve some of our most pressing challenges.”

The group of student finalists also voted to name Taylor the winner of the Seaborg Award, which Mirza said is given to someone the students feel best represents the class and “embodies the spirit of this competition.” Taylor spoke on behalf of the class at the virtual award ceremony last month.

Taylor said that for her, the research has never been about the accolades.

“I consistently classified my project as where equity meets science,” Taylor said. “When you’re doing research like this, you have to think about the lives you’re going to impact … you have to make sure the people you’re affecting, they will be able to have access to it.”

Taylor pointed to work on equity she has done in her own community, which informed the approach to her research.

“My career began in racial equity work, it still is. I’ve just been able to apply it to a different field of study,” she said. “With that background knowledge, going into a science field of study, it has afforded me the ability to look at things from an equitable standpoint.”

As her research progressed, she said, she thought daily about the people who could benefit from her color-changing sutures, pointing to disparities that make surgical site infections more common in low-income nations.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about the people affected by surgical site infection. … These people are my why,” she said.

Kavitha Ranganathan, a plastic surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said she found Taylor’s research “truly inspiring.”

She said Taylor’s idea focuses on “prompt diagnosis. On the clinical side of things, this is very important for decreasing the downstream consequences of having an infection.”

Ranganathan works with Brigham and Women’s Center for Surgery and Public Health and focuses on the consequences of the cost of surgical care, looking at what happens when patients become impoverished as a result of the care they receive. She said approaching research with an eye on equity, as Taylor did, is “really the best way to make sure the solutions we come up with as scientists and as surgeons and as professionals apply to everyone.”

She said surgical site infections are more common and associated with higher mortality rates in low-income countries but noted, “We also face similar challenges in the United States, in a high-income country.”

“One of the most exciting things, I would say, about Dasia’s work is she’s taking probably one of the most challenging problems that affects patients across the world and trying to devise an objective way of solving that problem,” Ranganathan said.

Before starting her suture research, Taylor spent years focused on racial equity work in her community.

Beginning her freshman year at West High School in Iowa City, she participated in an educational practice called “Instructional Rounds,” first created at Harvard University to foster systemic improvement in schools. As part of a group, Taylor went around to different classrooms at her high school, observing the racial makeup, taking notes on such things as student and teacher interaction and seating charts. The group met to come up with solutions to the challenges it observed, and Taylor later visited Harvard to speak at a conference about the work. She also serves as a student co-chair of the school district’s equity advisory committee.

When she heads to college in the fall, Taylor says, she plans to major in political science. She eventually hopes to go to law school, “because equity work has my heart,” but she plans to continue with her research.

She wants to patent her beet-infused sutures, continue additional studies, and work toward getting it licensed so it can be put into practice. She has continued work on the project, taking in feedback she has received from judges in the numerous science competitions in which she has participated.

“I’m a firm believer in not letting one field of study consume me, and that is explicitly due to intellectual curiosity,” Taylor said. “I consider myself to be intellectually curious. I just love to learn. When I’m fascinated with a venture of some sort, I have to follow it to its logical conclusion, no ifs, ands or buts.”

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