Rowland Hall equips students with the skills and experiences they need to thrive in a dynamic world. We believe education is active, and that deep, authentic learning experiences engage students in powerful ways, enabling them to view themselves as innovators and creators. Our new vision and strategic priorities are helping to center and formalize this work, but it’s long been a part of the Rowland Hall experience, inspiring generations of students to pursue, create, and share knowledge both in and outside the classroom. In the past year alone, we’ve watched many of our young scientists and engineers, fueled by their personal passions, tackle real-world problems and offer innovative solutions designed to better our shared world. This fall, we’re spotlighting some of their stories. (Be sure to also check out "Three Rowland Hall Students Place Fourth at International Science and Engineering Fair for Aviation Engine Design," "Research Science: Taking Classroom Discoveries to the International Level," and "Max Smart ’22 and Science Teacher Dr. Padmashree Rida Published in International Journal of Molecular Sciences.")
Last year, while on the lookout for a science fair research subject, upper school debater Ruchi Agarwal found inspiration in a topic that was being examined by policy debaters across the country: The United States federal government should substantially increase its protection of water resources in the United States.
"It’s a prominent issue right now,” Ruchi said, and one she became personally passionate about while researching water resources for debate competitions. She decided to focus her science fair project on the study of toxic cyanobacteria—algae mats that produce neuro and liver toxins poisonous to humans and animals—in streams and rivers. Though much research has been done on algal blooms in lakes, Ruchi explained, little has been done on their presence in flowing waterways, despite cyanobacteria’s threat to lives around the globe.
Though much research has been done on algal blooms in lakes, little has been done on their presence in flowing waterways, despite cyanobacteria’s threat to lives around the globe.“Once I realized that the toxic mat formation is not just a local issue, but a global one, I immediately embarked on researching more about this scientific issue,” Ruchi later wrote about her decision.
Ruchi hypothesized that because toxin-producing cyanobacteria co-exist with non-toxic producers, they can synergize with non-toxic bacteria nutrients, as well as other resources—a theory she wanted to test at the Virgin River in Utah’s Zion National Park. With the help of park employees, Ruchi collected samples at four sites over a period of four months, which, with the support of University of Utah professor Dr. Ramesh Goel and graduate research assistant Shadman Kaiser, she tested for certain water quality parameters, cyanobacteria genomic content, and the ability of toxic cyanobacteria to synergize with other bacteria. Her research, Ruchi wrote, confirmed that Microcoleus, the most common cyanobacteria worldwide, is “dominant in nutrient-deficient environments and exhibits strange metabolic behavior which makes this genus very competitive in terms of flourishing with respect to other toxin producers.”
To say Ruchi’s findings were well received would be an understatement. As planned, Ruchi first presented her project at the regional University of Utah Science & Engineering Fair (USEF), where she qualified to compete at the state USEF. At state, she received further accolades: first place in the Civil and Environmental Engineering division, as well as the Salt Lake City Public Utilities prize. She also received an unexpected but exciting opportunity: a nomination to apply to compete for the Stockholm Junior Water Prize (SJWP), the most prestigious youth competition for water-related research.
When asked how it felt to be nominated for the SJWP, Ruchi remembered, “It was a mix of exciting and daunting … more the second emotion, primarily because receiving the nomination is just one step of many.”
Indeed, competing for the SJWP isn’t for the faint of heart: nominees (students in grades nine through twelve) must be working on projects “aimed at enhancing the quality of life through improvement of water quality, water resources management, or water and wastewater treatment,” and are required to write scientific research papers that are first submitted for state-level competitions, then—for the 50 young scientists chosen from each state—for national competition. The national winner then goes on to compete with scientists from 30 countries at the international competition in Stockholm, Sweden.
“I definitely hadn’t written a paper to this scale,” Ruchi said. And though the process came during the Upper School’s AP test season, she devoted time each day for three weeks to putting together her submission, leaning heavily on the knowledge she built in Upper School classes like biology, English, and debate—knowledge, Ruchi said, that equipped her with “the critical thinking skills that go into writing a 20-page paper.” In May she learned that her entry, “Water Scarcity in the Arid West: What is the Role of Harmful Algal Blooms?”, had earned the top prize for the state of Utah, and that she was headed to the national competition at the Colorado School of Mines in June.
“It was really nice to know it had paid off, and I was excited,” said Ruchi. That excitement grew once she arrived in Colorado, where she was able to learn more about water conservation and connect with students from across the nation. “It was inspiring talking to other people who are passionate about this,” she said.
And though Ruchi’s research already had a track record of excellence, she remained modest about her paper’s chance at the national level. “I thought maybe I had a chance to win one of the special awards,” she said, referring to prizes awarded to two top competitors who are not named either the national winner or one of two runners-up. You can, therefore, imagine Ruchi’s reaction when she was announced as a runner-up. “I was literally shocked,” she said.
Doing work that is so fundamental to our health and daily lives is incredibly fulfilling. It helped me realize that I could use my passion for research as a way to create change and find solutions to pressing issues in the scientific community.—Ruchi Agarwal, class of 2023
Ruchi may have been, but her teachers, including debate coach Mike Shackelford, weren't. “Ruchi is one of our top debaters, and, while I was thrilled, I wasn't surprised by her success at the SJWP,” said Mike. “She's always been driven, creative, articulate, and bright, and has honed her critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills over many years of competitive debate. As a coach, I've always believed that debate is a means to end, not an end in itself. And while I'm certainly happy when debaters win trophies, I'm especially proud when they apply their skills and knowledge to real-world experiences.”
With a boost of confidence as a scientist, Ruchi has started her senior year ready to build on her SJWP experience. She’s looking forward to tackling new challenges in classes like AP Biology, reworking her SJWP paper for submission to other science competitions, and growing her research skills. As an aspiring biology major, she said, she now better understands how the research she’s already interested in can make a difference in quality of life for people around the globe, and she hopes to play a role in effecting policy solutions through her work.
“Doing work that is so fundamental to our health and daily lives is incredibly fulfilling,” Ruchi reflected. “It helped me realize that I could use my passion for research as a way to create change and find solutions to pressing issues in the scientific community.”