Teen's research lifts yields
High school student to continue project, verify technique
By MATTHEW WEAVER
ODESSA, Wash. -- A 16-year-old high school junior is garnering national and international accolades for her recent discovery that a water-absorbent material increases the yield of dryland wheat by about 27 percent.
Odessa High School student Kira Powell found that mixing sodium polyacrylate -- the material in disposable diapers -- with wheat seed boosts yields. Her discovery came as part of an advanced placement course on science research.
Powell and her teacher, Jeff Wehr, advise caution. They're hearing from industry representatives interested in the method, but they warn more testing is necessary.
Powell said she wants to verify that her method works before proceeding further.
"It has potential, but stay tuned," she said.
"There's a responsibility as scientists to ensure that it actually works," Wehr said. "We're very confident that it would do it again, but we've got to try it again. You need those repeated trials."
The school's science course allows students to work on any in-depth research project of their choosing. Projects must have an effect on the community, state, nation or the world.
Powell got the idea while reading the instructions for the material in Wehr's laboratory and noticing its absorbency.
Powell and Wehr speculated that the seed should be able to draw moisture from the material and experimented with it.
Odessa farmer and family friend Jeff Schibel readily agreed to offer her less than an acre of ground when she called about the experiment, and was impressed by the results.
"If we'd have known it would have turned out like that, I would have liked to see it on a little larger scale, but it's a start," he said, noting he'd like to try it again on larger plots or on fall-seeded plots instead of spring-seeded plots.
Schibel hopes farmers in dryland areas can get the material on or near the seed to provide extra moisture, noting the seedling needs as much strength as possible to push through the soil.
"We took the baby steps," he said. "The next steps, we've gotta start walking."
Bill Schillinger, director of Washington State University's dryland research station in Lind, Wash., called Powell "extraordinary" and noted she has been asked to present at the Lind Field Day June 16.
Schillinger extended kudos to Powell, Wehr and Schibel for their work.
"The next step would be to test this in replicated experiments," Schillinger said. "In science we need to have research replicated in space and time. Then we'll know if this is truly working."
Powell said she doesn't have an agriculture background. Her father helps Schibel every summer and works for the Odessa Public Development Authority. Her mother is a doctor at Odessa Memorial Hospital.
The project appealed to her because Odessa is an agricultural community.
Powell won first place in the regional, state and national Science Symposium with a visual presentation, which allows her to share her research at the international symposium in London, England, in July. She also won first place at the regional, state and international Science Fair with a poster board presentation.
Wehr said he'd like to see Powell or other students continue with the research.
Wehr praised Powell.
"She sets a bar for herself -- it doesn't matter what everybody else in the class is doing," he said.
It's the first time one of his students won the opportunity to go to an international symposium, he said.
Powell also recently won a state golf tournament. She will be going to nationals for Future Business Leaders of America and is also involved with pep club, basketball and volleyball, occasionally taking time to ride motorcycles and go swimming. She will be a lifeguard at the Odessa pool over the summer.
She plans to pursue an education in engineering. She has several scholarship offers, including to Washington State University and Wesleyan University, but has yet to make a decision.
As Kira Powell's research makes headlines, science teacher Jeff Wehr said she is drawing criticism from some people concerned about potential toxicity of the material.
Wehr said that's not the case.
The material is used in disposable diapers, which are bad for the environment, Wehr agrees, but he said that's more due to the sealed plastic matter surrounding fecal matter thrown into landfills than the sodium polyacrylate.
The polymer can cause some skin irritation, but farmers would never come into contact with the material, he said.
There's also no effect on the soil, as the crystal grows like a sponge as it absorbs water and shrinks as the water leaves it, Wehr said.
There's no immediate effect on the crop, since the polymer doesn't decompose. But Wehr said long-term effects are uncertain.
"That's the thing we need to look at next," he said.