Column: For San Diego student the word was microplastics; it lead to a $20,000 prize – The San Diego Union-Tribune

In the 1967 film, “The Graduate,” a friend of Benjamin Braddock’s family pulls the graduate aside and confides: “I just want to say one word to you, just one word. Are you listening? Plastics.”

More than a half-century later, for high school student Kyle Tianshi, that word would be “microplastics,” the polluting particles emitted by plastics.

At age 15, Kyle already has dedicated a portion of his young life to detecting these contaminants through his research.

Kyle was shocked by two things when he began searching for microplastics in our tap water.

First, he was amazed that there were so many of them. He discovered the tap water at his Rancho Peñasquitos home was loaded with microscopic particles of plastic. He found that water from a drinking fountain at his school contained even more. Second, he was surprised that the equipment he needed to assess the pollution levels was so affordable.

For about $60 he was able to purchase the tools needed to analyze our water: a laser, a microscope and a Raspberry Pi microcomputer. “It’s incredibly powerful for the price,” he says.

Kyle now has applied for a preliminary patent and is continuing to finetune the research he began about three years ago.

His goal is to bring to market a low-cost alternative for detecting microplastics pollution levels to help people who don’t have access to water filtration systems.

Kyle’s experimentation has won him recognition and several awards, including about $27,000 in cash prizes.

Most recently, he received the highest honor in the California Youth Sustainability Awards contest sponsored by CG Roxane, the maker of Crystal Geyser bottled water, which awarded six prizes totaling $55,000.

Charles Calvat, the firm’s social responsibility director, offered high praise: “Kyle’s ability to leverage advanced technology including lasers, an image processing algorithm, and a microcomputer to create a device that can be used as a low-cost alternative for the 1 million Californians that do not have access to clean water at such a young age is no small feat.”

Calvat also lauded The Cambridge School student’s efforts to generate awareness of the global water crisis.

Kyle also won the 2021 International Young Eco-Hero Innovator Award for solving environmental problems, the 2019 Broadcom MASTERS National Rising Star Award and was a 2020 National 3M Young Scientist Challenge runner-up, to mention a few of his achievements.

“Kids like Kyle have shown that the next generation of leaders is here, and they are refusing to wait to solve the most pressing environmental challenges,” said Beryl Kay, president of Action For Nature, an international nonprofit that sponsors the Eco-Hero awards.

Kyle was moved to pursue clean water because microplastics are rapidly emerging as environmental contaminants. His parents are immigrants from the Beijing area. Neither had access to unpolluted drinking water while growing up, so they wouldn’t let him drink tap water.

The young scientist credits his sister, Emily, now a freshman at Stanford University, with inspiring him to pursue environmental research. He thanks his parents — his dad is an engineer and his mom is involved with 3-D technology — for their encouragement and letting him use half of their two-car garage for his laboratory.

He and his sister founded Clearwater Innovation which encourages students to turn their garages into research labs, advocates for clean water through blogs, social media and interviews with young water activists, and organizes community cleanup events.

On Nov. 24, for instance, Kyle’s nonprofit group hosted a two-hour trash pickup in San Dieguito Park.

While the effect of these microplastic particles on humans still isn’t fully known, they are all around us. Kyle points to studies indicating that 90 percent of our drinking water could contain microscopic plastic fibers. They can bind with pathogens or toxic chemicals. such as lead, to pose a greater threat to human health.

After California legislation was approved in 2018 to adopt a standardized testing method to monitor the extent of microplastics in our drinking water, Kyle reached out to a state water control board official who agreed that a rapid, inexpensive screening tool would be helpful.

Kyle named his invention NEREID, which stands for Nanoparticle Examining Raspberry-pi Empowered Image (processing) Detector. In Greek mythology, Nereid also refers to a daughter of the ancient sea god, Nereus.

What will he do with his $20,000 prize? Kyle plans to use it to commercialize his invention, for which he has built a 3-D model, and to stage more Clearwater Innovation events. First, though, he is donating $1,000 to Team Seas toward its goal of removing 30 million pounds of trash from the ocean.

Lest someone get the impression Kyle is a science nerd, he actually spends much of his free time writing flash fiction stories and science fiction novels. His fifth sci fi book, “Eventide,” was released on Amazon in July. Oh, and he enjoys playing the piano.

As for college, Kyle says he is unsure about his major. “Right now, I’m just focused on two things: environmental advocacy and making an impact.”