Chileans win Junior Water Prize

Two students from Chile have won the Stockholm Junior Water Prize for their work on how living organisms can help clean oil spills in extremely low temperatures. Impeller met with Naomi Estay, 17, and Omayra Toro, 18, to learn about their amazing project and trip to Antarctica. 

By Chad Henderson

“It’s so exciting,” says Omayra Toro, sitting with Naomi Estay the day after the ceremony. “We’re getting messages from family and friends at home, and they’re writing about us in the local papers.” 

The night before Toro and Estay stood onstage receiving the Stockholm Junior Water Prize from Sweden’s Crown Princess Victoria, and later they would attend a royal banquet with the princess at city hall. In the meantime, they and all of the Junior Water Prize nominees visited the offices of Xylem, the global sponsor of the prize, to learn about careers in the water industry.

“After winning the prize, my personal mission is to share our experience with other young people, to create interest about how they must protect natural resources like water,” says Toro.

“By entering the Junior Water Prize competition, we wanted to share our research with the world,” Estay says, “so that everyone knows the importance of the Antarctic continent, and can learn about the people who live there and work every day to preserve its ecosystems and our biggest freshwater reserve.”

Discovering oil-degrading bacteria 

Toro and Estay have been involved in their project for two years, which the high school students began when participating in a school fair on Antarctica.

“We were interested in Antarctica because we had read a newsletter describing the problem of pollution from hydrocarbons there, and that it was worse than people thought,” says Toro. “We were worried about this situation, and were basically looking for a solution to it.”

At the same time, the students read about a scientist at the University of Chile, José Manuel Pérez, who was collecting bacteria from Antarctica to study its properties. With the help of their biology teacher, Roxana Nahuelcura, the students contacted Pérez and were able to use his laboratory to examine more than one hundred different types of bacteria.

“Professor Pérez taught us how to use the equipment and material in the lab, and about different methodologies,” says Toro. “He shared his bacteria samples with us from previous trips to Antarctica, and we studied them to see how they degraded.”

Since an international treaty prohibits bringing foreign organisms into Antarctica, the students had to find oil-degrading bacteria that were native to the continent. Eventually Toro and Estay discovered a bacterial strain with the power to degrade hydrocarbon, even in very low temperatures. With this discovery they won the Antarctic School Fair, along with a weeklong trip to Antarctica in February 2013.

International cooperation on Antarctica

“I was waiting for the trip to Antarctica for two years,” Estay says. “When I was finally there it was a wonderful moment. Chile is very close to this continent, but we don’t know its biodiversity. I feel very proud to have had the opportunity to travel there.”

During the stay in Antarctica, Estay and Toro visited the bases of different countries, hiked in the glaciers, and learned how to take bacterial samples from snow.

“In Antarctica we could see the cooperation there between countries,” says Estay. “This is really important.”

“All the countries are there for research,” says Toro. “Antarctica is the point where all the countries converge. We were at the Chilean base, but if we walked two meters we were at the Russian base. You could see the importance of all the countries cooperating in their scientific research.”

By the time of the Stockholm Junior Water Prize, Estay and Toro had managed to identify a dozen bacterial strains with the potential to clean up oil spills, by metabolizing it in extremely low temperatures.

“The knowledge developed has potentially widespread application,” the Junior Water Prize Jury wrote in its citation for the Chilean project. “It shows how we can learn from natural processes to solve modern problems.”

Looking ahead, Naomi Estay is interested in a career in medicine. “I love biology, but I want to study medicine and become an oncologist so I can help my people,” she says. Omayra Toro plans on studying environmental science and biology, with a focus on preserving natural resources.

“My experience in Stockholm will help us take care of the water in Santiago,” Estay says. “The environmental awareness in Sweden and the technology developed there for treating water is awesome. That’s something that we have to copy in countries like Chile.”

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About the Stockholm Junior Water Prize
Xylem has been the international sponsor of the Stockholm Junior Water Prize since its inception. The competition is open to young people between 15-20 years of age, who have conducted water-related projects focusing on local, regional, national or global topics of environmental, scientific, social or technological importance.

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