Last week, it was announced that Wilton 9th grader Anika Bhagavatula made it to the top-10 finalists of the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Top Young Scientist Challenge, the national STEM competition. While an 11-year-old from Colorado was just named the overall winner, Wilton High School‘s Bhagavatula still has a lot to be proud of in being one of only 10 middle schoolers who made it all the way to the finals, and calls her selection, “a real honor.”

During school year 2016-17, participants in the country’s most prestigious middle school science fair competition were asked to submit a well-thought out idea for a new invention or solution that could solve or impact an everyday problem that directly affects them, their families, their communities, and/or the global population. In May 2017, the top 10 finalists were chosen and invited to spend the summer working on their projects so that they could present their ideas at the 3M Innovation Center in Minnesota in October.

Bhagavatula says that one of the most amazing parts of the experience was to be able to work with a 3M scientist/mentor over the summer months to further her research in preparation. Together they worked through the scientific method to advance her idea from a theoretical concept into a physical prototype.

“Over the summer, I met with my mentor weekly via Skype, where we discussed my ideas, research and next steps. She also connected me to other 3M scientists who were experts in various fields of science to help me with my project. [At the Finals], It was wonderful to meet my mentor in person after months of communication about the project,” she says.

Bhagavatula’s invention, EcoBoom, is a natural solution to clean up oil spills using pomegranate husks and orange peels. Her research on major oil spills in the U.S. led her to create a prototype that can absorb oil four-to-five times its weight. Major oil spill incidents, which can cause approximately 1.3 million gallons of petroleum to spill into U.S. waters each year, inspired her to explore cost-effective, biodegradable options that can remedy this national and global issue.

For a student so taken with studying science, being able to visit 3M was a prize in itself.

“We were given the opportunity to explore 3M’s labs and to learn about the different 3M platforms of technology. Participating in this challenge was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I am thrilled to have been a part of it,” Bhagavatula says.

During the final competition at the 3M Innovation Center in St. Paul, Minn., the finalists presented their inventions to an esteemed panel of 3M scientists, school superintendents and administrators from across the country. In addition to presenting their prototypes, the ten finalists paired up to compete in two additional challenges through which they combined multiple 3M technologies to solve real-world problems.

The Winner was 7th grader Gitanjali Rao from Lone Tree, Colo., who is working to develop Tethys, a portable, sensor-based device that can detect lead in water faster and more easily than other current techniques. Rao was awarded the title of “America’s Top Young Scientist” as well as a $25,000 prize.

Bhagavatula received $1,000 and a $500 excitations gift card from Discovery Education and 3M.

Of course, just because one of the other finalists took the top prize doesn’t mean that she is finished with science.

“This experience has motivated me to continue innovating. In the short term, I plan to continue experimenting, testing and improving my idea. I would also like to continue to find new solutions to problems we face today and possibly enter into other competitions over the course of my high school years,” she says.