Last year, a friend of Iris Gupta had a bad reaction to a peanut, a reaction so severe that it landed her in the hospital. That event, and her own allergic reaction to a cat, got Iris thinking: What if she could find a way to bring relief to people with allergies?
The 12-year-old girl from North Potomac came up with a solution that made her one of 10 finalists at the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, a nationwide competition in which fifth-through-eighth-graders develop scientific plans to solve everyday problems.
Iris’s project addresses allergic reactions. When your body encounters an allergen — such as pollen, dust or certain foods — a type of chemical called histamine is released. Histamine (pronounced HIS-ta-meen) is what causes itchiness, sneezing and other symptoms of an allergic reaction. Iris’s plan is to use very tiny substances called nanoparticles to target and stop the histamine release, therefore preventing the nasty reactions.
At the finals, which ended Tuesday in St. Paul, Minnesota, Iris presented her anti-allergy plan to judges and competed in two mystery scientific challenges.
The top prize of $25,000 and an “adventure trip” went to Hannah Herbst, 14, of Boca Raton, Florida. Iris received fourth place. But her work on the anti-allergy project impressed Raha Been, a 3M scientist who served as her mentor in the competition.
Been says Iris has proved herself to be a great problem-solver. She was also impressed with Iris’s desire to use science to help people.
“Allergies really affect the quality of life that people have,” Been said. “It’s really important to see the passion that Iris has for solving a problem that can really impact people’s lives.”
“When you know it’s going to help a lot of people, it’s very motivating,” Iris said of her research.
Iris understands what allergy sufferers go through. The encounter with the cat left her with a red face and swollen eyes, she wrote in a recent blog post on the contest Web site.
Although she is one of the youngest of the finalists, Iris is confident in her project’s potential. Last year she submitted her plan to the Montgomery County science fair and won an award for best female science student.
“That got me thinking about more ways to develop it, so I submitted it to the Young Scientist Challenge,” she said.
Even though she has been unable to test her project in a lab, Iris has done lots of research to make sure science backs up her idea. Been helped her connect with experts who were able to answer questions and give her suggestions.
“When I talk to Dr. Been or any expert who is very knowledgeable in their field,” Iris said, “it kind of inspires me to want to know that much about a field that I work in also.”
Iris has embraced the chance to engage her imagination with scientific research, according to Been. She has taken a simple, common issue and explored it deeply.
“Science is about everyday life,” Been said. “A lot of people don’t realize they’re engaging in science when they already are.”