Meghan Shea, an 18-year-old West Chester native, current freshman at Stanford, and self-described "science nerd," was named today by Popular Mechanics as one of its top 10 innovators for 2013.
Shea was given the magazine's Next Generation Award for a simple, no-cost filter designed to remove almost all E. coli bacteria from water. The magazine said her work has the potential to "save lives in the world's poorest regions." The filter can be built by anyone and has its most potential in developing countries.
Shea got the idea for the Moringa-Seed Water Filter while on a science fellowship at Texas Tech University last year. Shea was awarded the fellowship between her junior and senior years at Unionville High School in Kennett Square. There, and at home in West Chester with her parents, Pete and Kathy Shea, she delved into her love of marine biology, which led to a love of environmental science.
At Texas Tech, she worked in the lab of microbiologist Michael San Francisco, a Ph.D and a vice president of research at the school. Shea said the professor didn't really need help with his main projects, but had an interest in water filtration. He suggested she pursue that.
"I just started reading and came across information on the moringa seed," Shea said.
Shea said it had been realized for years that the seed had coagulating properties that could be used in filtration systems. The moringa tree is cultivated throughout the world. But the process of getting the seed into useable form was clunky so much of the research into its potential died off.
Most of the research was counter-intuitive, Shea said,
"There was a lot of stirring and sitting, and stirring waiting. It was just not user friendly."
So she set her goal on streamlining the procedure.
"I wanted it (the filter) made out of household items, so people who used it could make their own systems. I just did research into other natural substances that were used in filtration. I combined them with the moringa.
"It was definitely a lot of trial and error. I came in with a science background not an engineering background," she said with a laugh. "I would make a filter and water would pour out of places I didn't think it could pour out of."
Shea said she was on her own in the lab, which gave her great freedom to experiment. She didn't discover the correct process until the fellowship was almost over.
"I was able to collect data and see that bacteria were being reduced by the filter which was really, very exciting," Shea said.
But her device is still in development. It hasn't been field tested. Still, she was named a finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search, which is how she came to be known by editors at Popular Mechanics.
So, for now, the freshman is not only busy juggling studies and a new school, but applying for a patent.