Freshman To Compete in International Science, Engineering Fair

HP’s Ellie Chong develops early detection method for post-surgery infections

A Highland Park High School freshman has found a way to detect the most prevalent and costly type of hospital-acquired infection before symptoms start. And her method only costs about 40 cents.

Ellie Chong won first place in the Biomedical and Health Science category at the Texas Science and Engineering Fair for her project, along with the $1,000 Wayne Squires Award. She was also selected to attend the International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles in May.

Chong developed a gel that can be attached to surgical sites under a dressing. If a site is going to show symptoms of infection, the gel will turn blue before those symptoms occur.

Chong’s project works because infected sites become less acidic before symptoms develop. Her gel uses a dye that changes color as the solutions’ acidity varies. Chong’s other ingredients include gelatin, a major ingredient in Jell-O.

Chong said she saw applications for her project in hospitals in Dallas, as well as in more isolated areas where doctors might perform surgery while on medical mission trips. Patients in rural areas without ready access to medical care could use the gel to monitor their wounds at home.

“This is just an easy and fast readout, and it can be used by anyone, which is really great,” she said. “Because it only requires a simple, visual inspection, it doesn’t require prior knowledge or training.”

Chong said she experimented with other gel ingredients before settling on gelatin. She tried the top-selling supplement collagen, which didn’t change color, and the vegetarian gelatin substitute agar-agar, which broke apart because of its grainy texture.

She also had to test different concentrations of her materials. Too little gelatin caused her gel to become runny, while too much caused the gel to become brittle and break.

Chong credited her science teachers at Highland Park High School for their help in answering her questions and supporting her project and said she was also grateful to her parents for their support.

“I’d love for other students who are interested in science to be able to do this because I think it’s a great opportunity to meet other students that are interested in STEM,” she said, “and also just to pursue something that you’re interested in.”

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