An investigation into how materials decompose in soil has earned a Lyneham High School student second prize in a prestigious international science competition.
Hadia Bizhan was inspired by her travels in her native country Afghanistan and other developing nations to look into effective and low-cost ways to manage waste in landfills.
The year 10 student designed an experiment to find out if the acidity level of a soil would impact on the rate of decomposition of biodegradable materials.
She put egg cartons in containers of soil with varying pH levels and added some earth worms and fruit scraps to help them break down. She found that the most acidic soil had the fastest rate of decomposition, a finding that could have applications for improving landfills.
"A huge trend that's being seen in landfills currently is that decomposers and biodegradable materials aren't being provided with the necessary factors to actually decompose aerobically, so that means with oxygen," Miss Bizhan said.
"And so because of this, they're actually decomposing anaerobically and so they're releasing harmful greenhouse gases, like methane and carbon dioxide, as well as leachate, which is a substance filled with heavy metals and that goes into waterways and therefore contaminates the soil and waterways."
Miss Bizhan entered her project into the ACT Science and Engineering Fair and made it through to the national BHP Foundation Science and Engineering Awards. Then she was selected as one of seven Australian students to go on to the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair.
It was late at night in mid-May when she found out on a live stream presentation from the United States that she had won second place in the chemistry category.
"I was just super happy with that and knowing that I'd actually given back to my parents because they had sacrificed so much for me."
Miss Bizhan was born in Afghanistan and moved with her family to Australia at the age of three-and-a-half so her father, Dr Nematullah Bizhan, could undertake a PhD at the Australian National University.
She travelled with her family to India, Pakistan and China and back to Afghanistan and along the way noticed the lack of resources and strategies for waste management in those countries.
"[Afghanistan has] just a really rich culture and it's just a very vibrant culture and the people are just so kind and resilient despite what they're going through.
"I would say that's really where my passion came from because that's where I'm from and so my roots are there and I would always see these problems and I wouldn't see them in Australia and I was thinking why does this happen there, but not here?"
Miss Bizhan is planning to continue exploring her interest in science and has been invited to a virtual engineering camp hosted by North Carolina State University.
She's planning to study a double degree in law and science when she finishes school. Her project has sparked further research ideas, including testing non-biodegradable substances and investigating the carbon cycle.
"I know the value of education just because of where I was from and so my parents were always pushing me to take the most opportunities you can and to make the most of your education," she said.
"I definitely will be continuing science in the future and making more projects and talking to scientists, and just trying to learn more about science and what I can do to help this world."
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