It took Olivia Hallisey, now 17, just one year to develop a possible solution to an intractable issue facing public health workers: the lack of a rapid, portable, early diagnostic test for the Ebola virus. The effort did not go unnoticed: she won the grand prize at September's Google Science Fair. (Scientific American co-sponsors the awards.)
Hallisey, currently a high school junior (right), lives in Greenwich, Conn.—far removed from the West African communities hit hardest by the most recent Ebola outbreak. After reading reports of how quickly the disease was spreading through Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, Hallisey felt moved to help, and with encouragement from her science research teacher, she looked into existing tests for Ebola.
She found that most tests require electricity and refrigeration, which are both in short supply in rural villages, and take hours or days to yield results. Diagnoses often came after patients had transmitted the virus to others. “The best way to limit Ebola's spread is if you can isolate someone before they're contagious,” Hallisey says.
With that in mind, Hallisey came across a silk fiber derivative that could keep test components stable without refrigeration. She then conferred with the material's developers, biomedical engineers at Tufts University, and figured out how to use the material to create a paper-based test that is portable, operates at room temperature and returns results within 30 minutes. Next, she hopes to get the test into the hands of doctors who can evaluate her device in the field.