Ogden teen fights opioid epidemic with science fair project, gets national recognition

OGDEN, Utah—An Ogden teen is getting national accolades for her science fair project, which has turned into a way to help battle the opioid epidemic.

Mercedes Randhahn came up with the experiment last school year.

The now 14-year old 9th graders test is simple—just a few ingredients combined together into liquids that she drips onto test plates.

To Mercedes, it’s not rocket science.

To the rest of us? It might be a little confusing.

“The dimethyl sulfoxide is going to make the liquid line go up,” Mercedes explained, of a liquid line that rises on the test plates.

As she explained, “the molecule is changing, it’s not the original molecule. Because using capillary action, it’s going to differ for each substance.”

Plainly said: Mercedes is testing to see if she can change the chemical structure of caffeine.

Why caffeine? Because she said it has a similar chemical structure to opioids, but the teen can’t test actual opioids because that would be illegal.

“The goal is to hopefully deactivate an opioid, because in Utah especially, there is a major problem with the opioid epidemic,” she said.

The St. Joseph’s Catholic High School student came up with the idea for the science fair in 8th grade, in order to look at how someone could safely dispose of opioids, without having to leave their own home.

People normally have to bring their pills to a safe disposal site in order to get rid of them.

She said opioids aren’t safe to dispose of down the sink or toilet because of environmental hazards. Leaving them in the cabinet, Mercedes pointed out, can lead to an increased risk for overdose, suicide or accidents with children.

She knows that from personal experience.

“I had a friend who committed suicide by means of opioids that weren’t properly disposed of,” Mercedes said. “That was traumatic to learn about.”

Mercedes was only 12 when her friend died.

Since then, she’s been researching the opioid problem in Utah.

For her science fair project, she looked how to use activated carbon-- aka charcoal-- to change the chemical structure of opioids.

It’s the same charcoal commonly used in face masks and for teeth whitening. It’s also the main ingredient in naloxone, which first responders use to save people who are overdosing on drugs.

Mercedes mixed the activated carbon with vinegar, then added caffeine and looked at the results.

She measured out chemical streaks on a test plate, and made some calculations.

The result? “My treatment worked,” she said.

Her idea is for pharmacies to hand out packets filled with charcoal when filling prescriptions so that people can mix it with vinegar and throw away any unused pills.

Not only did Mercedes take first place in her category at the University of Utah Science and Engineering Fair, but she also beat more than 2,000 students from across the country to earn one of 30 spots at the Broadcom MASTERS.

The competition touts itself as the “nation’s premier Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) middle school competition.”

The Broadcom MASTERS hands out awards to students, including a $25,000 grand prize.

Mercedes will travel to Washington, DC next week for the competition, which kicks off on October 25.

Two other young women in Utah are also participating in the Broadcom MASTERS—Sidor Clare and Kassie Holt from the Beehive Science and Technology Academy in Sandy.

Their project looked at how to make bricks on Mars rather than transporting in building materials, should people build on the planet one day.

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