Recently, Angela Zhan, a Logan High School freshman, was named one of the top STEM students in the nation.
Working with researchers from Weber State and Utah State University, she embarked on a journey to engineer microbes that consume plastic waste, and in the process has earned herself a spot in the top 30 finalists of the national Broadcom MASTERS competition.
“I know that plastic is commonly used in our daily lives. Like, for example, toys, grocery bags, and even in computers. So, my goal is to develop technology to allow us to keep using plastics without damaging the environment,” Zhan said.
The microbes Zhan uses were collected from the Great Salt Lake. Because the Great Salt Lake is such an extreme environment, it’s an excellent place to find microbes that consume unusual materials to survive.
“For my first step, I collected water samples from the Great Salt Lake. Then I isolated plastic degrading microbes, and I put bioplastic producing genes into those microbes,” Zhan explained. “For my last step, I tested the engineered strains, and I found that they were able to efficiently degrade plastic waste and produce environmentally friendly bioplastics.”
Zhan said she found her inspiration for her project years ago from a magazine article, and has worked since then to make this research a reality.
“I saw a New York Times Magazine in 2017, where it said that 8.3, I think, billion metric tons of plastic has been produced since the 1950s. And it's oil based, so it's really hard to degrade, and soon the earth will be covered in plastic, if we don't start degrading it or, like, finding new ways to get rid of it,” Zhan said.
While Zhan’s project is currently housed in beakers in a lab, she hopes to expand this project and tackle our global plastic problem by breaking down plastic waste at a larger scale in the future.