Bucks student wins national award for environmental research

May Wang won the President's Environmental Youth Award.
May Wang won the President's Environmental Youth Award. (EPA)
Posted: August 29, 2014

When May Wang got her first glimpse of the effluent flowing from the Camden sewage treatment plant into the Delaware River, she was not impressed.

"It was not a pleasant experience, necessarily," she recalled. "But it was educational."

A subsequent research project by the 16-year-old student from Holland, Bucks County, won her a President's Environmental Youth Award, announced Wednesday. The award is given annually to one student in each of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's 10 regions.

Wang's work was the result of six weeks during the summer of 2013 in a research and mentorship program at the University of Pennsylvania's Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology. As part of the program, students took a field trip to the Camden plant.

While other students looked at cadmium toxicity, car exhaust, and carcinogenic substances in coal fly ash, Wang took on bisphenol A, a hormone-disrupting chemical used in many plastics and the lining of food cans.

One of the Penn professors working with the group told Wang that BPA, as the chemical is commonly known, is not filtered out during the treatment process. There are concerns about the effects on wildlife, and about potential ramifications for drinking water supplies.

Wang decided to figure out whether activated charcoal would remove the substance effectively from wastewater effluent.

Back in the lab - after a review of the current scientific literature - she mixed various solutions of BPA. Then, she tested two methods of removal, mixing the solutions with activated charcoal and running the solutions through a charcoal filter.

Testing the solutions with a spectrophotometer, she found that the filtration always removed at least 85 percent of the BPA. Plus, the filter was effective for multiple uses.

What she liked best about the project was "the independence," she said. "It's not often that you get six weeks in a university lab to do pretty much whatever you want."

EPA Regional Administrator Shawn M. Garvin said Wang's project "demonstrates the kind of leadership needed to take on tough environmental challenges."

Those in the industry were impressed as well. Wang's paper has been selected to be presented at conferences of two industry and professional groups, the American Water Resources Association and the Association for Environmental Health and Science Foundation.

Gerald Galloway, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Maryland and cochair of the technical committee for the AWRA conference, praised Wang for "thinking ahead."

"One of the things we like to see is young talent," he said. "The whole issue of emerging contaminants is one the country is wrestling with, and here is a woman who is willing to get out in front and see what she can do about the problem."

Now, Wang wants to create an economic model, figuring out how much it would cost to implement an activated charcoal system in a sewage treatment plant . . . when she's not immersed in her math, chemistry, and physics course work this year. She'll be a junior at Council Rock High School South.

For college, she's contemplating engineering or physics, which she figures must be in her blood.

Her parents, Winnie Zhu and Max Wang, are physicists. And her sister, Joy, is in college, majoring in physics.


sbauers@phillynews.com

215-854-5147 @sbauers

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