Teen tackles drinking water issues, competes at national level

Mississippi Water Environment Association member Sam Hardin (left) presents the statewide award for the Stockholm Junior Water Prize to Helen Peng, a 17-year-old rising senior at MSMS (Photo by Ryan Phillips, SDN)

SDN Editor

Few high school students can boast the accomplishments listed on the resume of 17-year-old Helen Peng.

But for this rising senior at the Mississippi School of Mathematics and Science in Columbus, her most recent accolade was the result of hard work and compassion for those who lack things often taken for granted in the developed world, namely drinking water.

Last month, Peng was one of 57 high school students selected as 2018 state winners of the U.S. Stockholm Junior Water Prize, the nation’s most prestigious youth award for a water-related science project.

The competition is open to projects focused on improving water quality, water resource management, water protection, and drinking water and wastewater treatment. It also connects scholars with professionals in the field to broaden the scope of their understanding.

She was given an all-expenses paid trip to the University of North Carolina and competed at the national finals, and while she did not place, she cherished the experience along with the progress she made on her project.

Peng said she was initially nervous about the high level of competition she would face at the national event, but said she was pleasantly surprised and ended up becoming really close with her four suite mates.

“I just really enjoyed talking to people my age who are passionate about the same environmental issues that I’ve been passionate about and also being able to meet people who are well practiced in the field and who work actively in water treatment and wastewater places was really inspiring, too.”

The international competition is set up to begin at the local level with high school science fairs, the winners of which advance to the regional level, then on to state, national and international, with the final competition held in Stockholm during World Water Week in August.

Sam Hardin, an active member of the Mississippi Water Environment Association, which is affiliated with the Water Environment Federation, was Peng’s judge at the regional level at Mississippi State and presented her with the award for winning at the state level.

“It is really encouraging to see somebody like Helen, as exceptional and advanced as she is at such a young age in water technology and research and our goal is to take that talent and really put it in an incubator where it is really mixed with other students who are kind of at her same caliber and that develops a lot of times into a passion that extends into a career,” Hardin said. “We’re excited about what she might be able to achieve in a water related career or something else, but this is certainly a valuable experience for everybody going to the national competition.”


Peng’s project that carried her all the way to the national competition focused on solar water disinfection.

“It’s a method used to disinfect water where essentially you are using really cheap and readily available resources such as plastic water bottles and sunlight and you’re really just putting the water in plastic bottles and putting them in the sunlight,” Peng explained. “In my research, I tried to improve this method and I pretty much just added a reflector that would reflect the the sunlight back into the bottle and increase the disinfection and I also added a titanium dioxide coat, which is a chemical that just sped up the process.”

The inspiration for Peng to step into the field of water technology came after noticing a need in underdeveloped parts of the world for drinking water, coupled with a major earthquake in Haiti that saw many die not from falling buildings, but from a lack of clean drinking water.

“A lot of the casualties (in Haiti) were due to the after effects and one of which was the lack of water, because their water treatment plant had been destroyed so that kind of inspired me in terms of the water and listening to the news mentioning solar water disinfection and this was around the time of science fair,” she said. “I knew I wanted to do science fair so I researched more into it.”

She then discussed how seeing that needed motivated her to do something about the problems around the globe relating drinking water.

“For a long time, I’ve been working on water research, trying to give people water, something we kind of take for granted in places like Africa and South America,” Peng said. “These people literally just don’t have water and I think it’s really important to have for us and its’ important for us since we have the resources and to also distribute the water and plan how to disinfect the water, I think it is really important for us to kind of spread this resource that we all kind of take for granted.”

When asked what was next on the horizon after her high school graduation, Peng laughed and said she wasn’t quite certain. But the options are certainly there.

Right now, she is applying to colleges, but said she hits a roadblock when asked what her major will be.

“I want to say I’m interested in a lot of different things, but I know in the future I would want to work with environmental things,” she said. “Today there is almost a conflict between humans and the environment, to the point where humans are seen as the antagonists and I would really like to make it a goal to settle this conflict and right now I’m really into art and design. I’m sort of looking into architecture with an emphasis on sustainable design, so I would probably double major in environmental engineering and architecture.”