Save the Planet: Students Showcase Environmental Projects

When Maria McDonald was a kid, she was a devoted fan of the beloved PBS documentary series “Nature.” 

“Every Sunday I’d get so excited to go down to the family room and watch all the animals,” said McDonald, now a junior at Independence High School and Loudoun’s Academy of Science.

McDonald is working on a sophisticated project to genetically modify bacteria to eliminate toxic plastics. Her project and dozens of others from Loudoun students of all ages will be showcased during the secondLoudoun Student Environmental ActionShowcase, which takes place online April 19-25.

This year’s showcase, organized by the Loudoun Environmental Education Alliance (LEEA), a nonprofit coalition made up of educational and environmental groups around the county, is a weeklong virtual event. Organizers are accepting video submissions through early April.

Jennifer Venable, education specialist at the Loudoun Soil and Water Conservation District and the program chair for this year’s SEAS, underscores that the event spotlights projects large and small, sophisticated and simple. The goal is to tap into students’ appreciation for the environment and outdoor spaces—and the community’s hunger for getting outside during the COVID pandemic. While there will be high-level problem-solving projects like McDonald’s, there will also be plenty of room for simple projects that celebrate the wonders of nature.

“We’re trying to broaden the topic this year to inspire people to get outside and look around and appreciate nature,” Venable said. “We want people to send us videos of what you’ve been doing this past year that inspired you in nature. Did you go for a walk and saw some trash and pick it up?”

McDonald got into environmental science through her longtime interest in genetics.

“I really wanted to do a project involving genetic modification. As I was doing some of my research, I came across these bacteria that basically eat plastic. I said, ‘Hold up—that is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!’” she said. “I really found inspiration for this project not only from my early years as somebody who loves to be outside and be in nature but as somebody who wanted to take an interdisciplinary approach to solve some of our world’s problems.”

McDonald’s project with fellow AOS studentVishnu Alavala focuses on modifying a non-pathogenic strain of the E. coli bacteria, commonly found in rivers around the world. The idea is to use genetic code from another bacteria, Ideonella sakaiensis, which has been shown to digest certain plastics, to fight the buildup ofPET plastics.

“One of the biggest problems with this plastic is that it gets into animals that we eventually end up eating. … These microplastics move up the food chain undigested,” McDonald said. “What we’re hoping to see with this project is that E. coli that are modified with that gene from Ideonella sakaiensis allows it to digest those PET plastics. We can put that E. coli into a river, for example, and clean up the microplastics in that river.”

After a successful inaugural event in 2019, last year’s SEAS event was canceled in the early weeks of the COVID pandemic. But organizers are enthusiastic about bringing it back this year in a virtual format. For Venable, 2021 is a perfect time to highlight the community’s newfound appreciation for nature, as Loudoun families found new ways to enjoy the natural world during the pandemic. And LEEA is hoping to catch young children with a passion for nature who may become future Maria McDonalds.

“All these students who have these amazing projects. … I really think they all have a story to tell of what inspired them. It goes back to somewhere in their life when they’ve gotten that sense of wonder and curiosity, and that evolved to that environmental stewardship,” Venable said.

The showcase will accept submissions through April 5, and members of the public can check out the showcase later that month on a special YouTube channel. The showcase will also feature messages from LEEA members, includingLSWCD, Morven Park, Claude Moore Park, Loudoun Water and Loudoun County Public Schools, along with community partners.

“One of the things that I love aboutSEAS is that we’re really putting an emphasis on just a general love of nature. Not necessarily saying you have to be doing this crazy complicated research project to change the world. That helps get everybody involved, everybody aware and everybody excited about conservation,” McDonald said.

For McDonald, it’s an exciting opportunity to showcase the project she andAlavala have worked on this school year with support from teachers and mentors at AOS. The young scientists are also participating in a global research program that partners them with students in South Korea working on a similar project.

“That’s been really exciting, a really unique experience,” McDonald said.

McDonald hopes to go into the emerging field of biotechnology with a focus on genetics. She plans to earn a PhD, work in a lab and possibly start her own company using nanotechnology.

For McDonald, the collaborative nature of environmental science is a big part of the appeal, and one of the reasons Loudoun’s SEAS showcase has so much value.

“It brings people together for a common positive goal. We’re looking to change the world. We’re looking to clean up plastic. We’re looking to save trees. We’re looking to save animals—whatever it might be,” she said. “It brings people of all ages of all backgrounds together, and in times like these, it’s just really refreshing to have that positive perspective. Let’s work together. Let’s work through differences. Let’s do this!”

The 2021 LEEA Student Environmental Showcase runs April 19-25 online and is open to all K-12 students in Loudoun, including public, private and homeschool. Deadline for submissions is April 5. Registration is free. For information on how to submit a project, go to loudounnature.org.

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