“It’s kind of this dinky-donk microscope, but it works really well,” said Emily Tianshi while holding an electronic microscope she bought on Amazon for $20.
The 16-year-old senior at the Cambridge School, in the Black Mountain neighborhood of San Diego, used the relatively inexpensive tool to conduct research that has landed her more than $45,000 in scholarship money since her freshman year.
Tianshi studied how the needles on San Diego’s famous Torrey Pine collect and retain water from the air.
“It’s quite a unique plant in so many different ways,” Tianshi said.
Tianshi discovered that the needle is uniquely equipped to absorb moisture from San Diego’s marine layer and pass it down to its roots. She said no other pine needle does that. They usually repel water.
The discovery initially landed Tianshi the $20,000 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Award in 2017 at the Broadcom Masters National Finals. As an added prize, the MIT Lincoln Laboratory named a minor planet in the asteroid belt after her.
Tianshi has continued her research into the Torrey Pine needle ever since.
“Four years later, I’m discovering these mechanisms and biomimicking them into a moisture harvesting material and device,” the soon-to-be-17-year-old explained.
Tianshi built a prototype of a moisture harvesting device that looks like Star Wars droid BB-8’s head with green straws sticking out the top.
“A lot of fog can pass through and condense on these little stick guys,” Tianshi said. “Fog is a source of water that is not really tapped into.”
Tianshi said her device could absorb water from marine layer and fog faster and far cheaper than any other device.
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“This device, theoretically, can harvest an equal amount of water as a 3-square meter fog net,” Tianshi said proudly. “It potentially could increase the amount of water they collect by almost three times.”
“Researchers in Chile estimated that if they could capture just 4 percent of the fog in Chile, that would be enough water to supply the nation’s driest areas,” Tianshi said.
Tianshi’s study and re-creation of the Torrey Pine needle has landed more awards since. She was the 2020 national runner-up for the Stockholm Junior Water Prize and named a 2020 Davidson Fellows Scholar. That led to a $25,000 scholarship.
Not bad for a teenager and her $20 microscope.
“I definitely want to continue this until the very end,” Tianshi said.
Tianshi said she has started the college application process and listed Stanford, Harvard and Vanderbilt as some of her top schools.