Iowa High Schooler Dasia Taylor Invents Color-Changing Sutures to Detect Infection

Seventeen-year-old Dasia Taylor was named one of 40 finalists in the Regeneron Science Talent Search, the country’s oldest and most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors. (Courtesy of Society for Science)

Dasia Taylor has juiced about three dozen beets in the last 18 months. The root vegetables, she’s found, provide the perfect dye for her invention: suture thread that changes color, from bright red to dark purple, when a surgical wound becomes infected.

The 17-year-old student at Iowa City West High School in Iowa City, Iowa, began working on the project in October 2019, after her chemistry teacher shared information about state-wide science fairs with the class. As she developed her sutures, she nabbed awards at several regional science fairs, before advancing to the national stage. This January, Taylor was named one of 40 finalists in the Regeneron Science Talent Search, the country’s oldest and most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors.

As any science fair veteran knows, at the core of a successful project is a problem in need of solving. Taylor had read about sutures coated with a conductive material that can sense the status of a wound by changes in electrical resistance, and relay that information to the smartphones or computers of patients and doctors. While these “smart” sutures could help in the United States, the expensive tool might be less applicable to people in developing countries, where internet access and mobile technology is sometimes lacking. And yet the need is there; on average, 11 percent of surgical wounds develop an infection in low- and middle-incoming countries, according to the World Health Organization, compared to between 2 and 4 percent of surgeries in the U.S.

Infections after Cesarean sections particularly caught Taylor’s attention. In some African nations, up to 20 percent of women who give birth by C-section then develop surgical site infections. Research has also shown that health centers in Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi have similar or lower rates of infection, at between 2 and 10 percent, following C-sections than the U.S., where rates range from 8 to 10 percent.

But smartphone access is markedly different. A BBC survey published in 2016 found that in Sierra Leone, about 53 percent of people own mobile phones, and about three-quarters of those owned basic cell phones, not smartphones.

“I’ve done a lot of racial equity work in my community, I’ve been a guest speaker at several conferences,” says Taylor. “So when I was presented with this opportunity to do research, I couldn’t help but go at it with an equity lens.”

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Taylor spent most of her time after school in the Black History Game Show, a club she’s been a member of since eighth grade, and attending weekly school board and district meetings to advocate for an anti-racist curriculum. For the four months leading up to her first regional science fair in February 2020, Taylor committed Friday afternoons to research under the guidance of her chemistry teacher, Carolyn Walling.

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SOURCE: Smithsonian Magazine, Theresa Machemer

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