Trio of Eden Prairie residents recognized with STEM awards

Harini Kethar (second from left) and Kerui Yang (rightmost) were named to the top five finishers in the 2017 North Central Regional Junior Science & Humanities Symposium. (Submitted photo)
Harini Kethar (second from left) and Kerui Yang (rightmost) were named to the top five finishers in the 2017 North Central Regional Junior Science & Humanities Symposium. (Submitted photo)
By Sean Miner
Sun Current Newspapers

Three Eden Prairie residents have been recognized for their work in STEM fields in recent competitions at the state level.

Two were named among five local national finalists in the 2017 North Central Regional Junior Science & Humanities symposium, which was held in Minneapolis last week.

Harini Kethar, who attends Minnetonka High School, and Kerui Yang, who attends Edina High School, took first and fifth place, respectively. Harini and Kerui both won an all-expenses-paid trip to the national symposium in San Diego.

Avni Jain of Eden Prairie High School was named one of five finalists who won a free trip to Los Angeles to present her project as part of the International Science and Engineering Fair.

Two of the students, Kerui and Avni, are both advised on a volunteer basis by Caroline Ylitalo, a 3M personal safety division scientist. She noted the small-world nature of this sort of competition and education, pointing out she had met Harini, and that Harini’s advisor had at one point advised her own children.

“Every year I help a dozen or so students as a volunteer,” explained Ylitalo. “I volunteer with science organizations, and I’m on the committee of the Twin Cities Regional Science Fair. I act as an advisor primarily for female students.”

According to Ylitalo, Harini and Kerui’s projects involved conducting an experiment and writing an essay, whereas the endpoint of Avni’s project was a poster presentation. The role of advisors like Ylitalo is to guide the students in posing a testable question and providing access to equipment to conduct the experiment.

“We discuss different ideas based on their level of interest,” said Ylitalo. “They come back with three questions about the idea, and I help them design an experiment. I help them through my job – obviously, I have access to chemicals and equipment.”

She ran through the basic premise of Kerui’s experiment, which dealt with a material that could someday be used for delivering drugs to a patient’s body. Kerui’s essay was titled, “Effects of pH on polyvinyl alcohol behavior in aqueous solutions.”

Essentially, polyvinyl alcohol is a material that reacts to changes in pH levels, which could be have useful medical applications.

“The idea was that you want it to deliver the drug, and then dissolve and disappear,” said Ylitalo. “One way you can do that is playing with the pH. [We asked], ‘Can you adjust the acidity so that the polymer opens up and holds the drug, or then closes up?’”

Harini’s entry was titled, “A cost-effective, patient-friendly, and biocompatible treatment for chronic pain and peripheral nerve damage using genetically engineered ‘smart’ nanoparticles.”
Her advisor, Princesa VanBuren-Hansen, explained that Harini had been working toward the goal for two years.

“Harini is a really special student and a remarkable young woman,” said VanBuren-Hansen. “[She] wants to find better ways for patients with chronic pain to find relief. She watched the suffering of a family member and was inspired to do something about it.”

Harini’s paper was also awarded one of seven 2017 Presidential Awards at the symposium, under the “Life” category. VanBuren-Hansen also noted her ability to collaborate with those in the field.

“She is hungry to learn, and willing to work as hard as many of the grad students with whom she spends much of the year,” said VanBuren-Hansen.

Avni Jain (second from right) was named one of five finalists in the state in the International Science and Engineering Fair. (Submitted photo)
Avni Jain (second from right) was named one of five finalists in the state in the International Science and Engineering Fair. (Submitted photo)
Ylitalo also shed light on Avni’s project, which was of a medical nature just like the others.

“She invented a sustainable, recyclable device to protect older people when they fall, to prevent them from breaking their hip,” explained Ylitalo. “What got her thinking about that is she saw an advertisement for an inflatable product, which was one-use and very expensive.”

Avni asked how poor people or even those of average income might be able to use a similar product at lower cost, as well as more than once if necessary. Ylitalo helped Avni connect with a professor at the University of Delaware who had worked in the area, and Avni designed the device with his input.

Each of the girls has a chance to advance further in competition, though Ylitalo noted the prestige of the achievements they already have under their belts. Each were selected from fields of dozens of other entrants.

Contact Sean Miner at sean.miner@ecm-inc.com.