Ron Neuman, an 18-year-old Israeli, took second prize on Wednesday in an international competition in Stockholm on water-related technologies.
Neuman, who began researching his project at age 15, developed a genetically engineered bacterium that detects poisons in the water, without the need for expensive laboratory tests
Neuman told Haaretz that his research began thanks to the encouragement of Carmela Ben-Zvi, a teacher at the Ohel Shem high school in Ramat Gan, where he studied. "My teacher believes that students should also engage in research, and she arranges for students to meet with parents who do research," Neuman explained.
So after a chance meeting with Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Bitan, the IDF Medical Corps officer in charge of preparing for terror attacks that could poison the water supply, Ben-Zvi "immediately hooked us up," he said.
Neuman's father, Haim, credits his son's excitement over research in large part to Ben-Zvi's encouragement and investment of time. "Children just want stimulation, and Ron is a good example," he said.
Neuman also met with Professor Shimshon Belkin, head of Hebrew University's department of environmental sciences, and Belkin became his primary mentor, with Bitan as a second mentor. According to Bitan, it was Belkin who proposed developing the bacterium.
When, after three years of work, Neuman finally had results, he entered a young scientists' competition at Jerusalem's Science Museum. The museum then sent him as its representative to another contest in the United States, sponsored by NASA, and Neuman won the silver medal there.
He then entered the Stockholm contest, where students from 26 countries, including the U.S., Germany and Japan, competed. According to Bitan, the contest usually awards only one prize, which was given this year to three Japanese students. But this year, the judges decided to deviate from this practice and awarded a second-place prize to Neuman, who received it from the hands of Sweden's queen.
Bitan said that Neuman's development will enable someone to take a testing kit to a water source and determine whether the water is safe for human consumption simply by putting a few drops of it into the kit. "Currently, there are similar tests that determine whether the water is poisonous to fish, but not to human beings," he said. "With our kit, the water comes into contact with the engineered bacteria, which will fluoresce if any material hazardous to human health is present."
Neuman said that the product is not yet at the stage where it can be marketed commercially. "About another three years of work will be needed to bring it to the point where it can be used commercially," he said.
In another five weeks, however, Neuman will begin his army service in the Intelligence Corps. "I don't know if I'll be able to continue my research in the Intelligence Corps, but that's the corps I wanted to enter," he said. "The army is a big place, and I'm sure it will work out."
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