Joburg teen wins top Google Science Fair award

Johannesburg – A 16-year-old’s dream to improve the world has earned her the top prize at tech giant Google’s Science Fair in California on Tuesday.

Kiara Nirghin, a Grade 11 pupil at St Martin’s School in Rosettenville, Johannesburg, came up with a cost-effective way to address the scourge of drought in South Africa.

She devised a way to turn orange and avocado peels into a highly-absorbent soil-ready water storage solution, with the hope that the low-cost material would help reduce waste material from juice manufacturing, while helping local farmers save both money and their crops.

According to Nirghin, the solution to long term water shortages needed a special material that could hold hundreds of times its weight in water while stored within soil, so that crops could maximise what little rainfall there was.

Usually, these materials were synthetic and filled with harmful chemicals that were both non-biodegradable and too expensive for local farmers.

On Tuesday, she was awarded the top prize, which was valued at $50 000 (about R695 000) in scholarship funding.

In her presentation to the Science Fair, Nirghin said she loved chemistry and physics.

'Everlasting love of science'

"I have always had a great love for chemistry since I was young. I vividly remember at the age of 7 experimenting with vinegar and baking soda solutions in plastic cups.

"My natural curiosity and questioning nature has sparked my everlasting love of science."

Nirghin also has a keen interest in food science and baking.

"I believe that food and chemistry are undoubtedly linked in the intertwined science web. I love molecular gastronomy and the application of scientific principles in food creation."

Nirghin gets her inspiration from Indian geneticist Mankombu Sambasivan Swaminathan and hopes that one day she can become a scientist who specialises in agricultural science, as well as a molecular gastronomist.

"M S Swaminathan has always been an inspiration of mine as [he] truly believed in the necessary movement of not only India but the whole world towards sustainable agricultural development," she said.

Prior to finding out that she was the winner, Nirghin told the organisers of the Science Fair that winning "would be the greatest inspiration and achievement knowing that others support my endeavour and scientific inclination".

She plans to use the prize money to continue her studies in science and further develop and apply her idea.

Nirghin also wants to assist in alleviating the problems that South Africa faces in food security and sustainable agricultural development.

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