Seventeen-year-old Keiana Cavè’s research looked into the depths of the Gulf of Mexico to assess the effects of the BP oil spill, but to reward her for the quality of her work, MIT Lincoln Laboratory and NASA reached for the stars: They named an asteroid after her.
It’s an honor shared by fewer that 15,000 others, according to Lincoln Lab.
There’s a link to the asteroid on NASA’s page. “I’ve seen it relative to other planets but haven’t seen (photos of) the physical entity yet,” said Cavè , a senior at Lusher Charter High School.
Her chemical research project won a second-place award at the 2015 International Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburgh in May, just as she was finishing her junior year at Lusher.
She has continued to delve into the subject of toxins created by oil spills and their effects, working in a lab at Tulane University, which allows top Lusher students to take classes there and earn college credit. (At the end of the school year, Cavè already will have nine hours at Tulane.)
She’s excelling there, too. “As a senior in high school, she’s doing something more ambitious than an undergrad project. She’s as accomplished as some of our grad students in their last year doing final projects,” said Dr. Sunshine Van Bael, a professor in the ecology and evolutionary biology department at Tulane.
Cavè isn’t just smart. She’s also poised and confident beyond her years and is accustomed to explaining her work to those with less of a bent for science.
“When there’s an oil spill, a thick layer of oil is on top of the seawater. It’s there for hours, sometimes days, until someone scoops it off,” she said. “After about six hours, we proved that oil and water mix — that’s emulsification. These toxic aldehydes form as sunlight hits it. The toxins sink into the water and are left there.”
She helped develop a technique to identify areas that have more of those particular aldehydes, providing a rapid sense of the status of spilled oil in different areas.
Attending a research program at the University of New Orleans overseen by a professor who was working on the oil spilled inspired her idea, she said.
Her work at Tulane is taking the topic further, looking at the thick spartina grasses that help stop erosion along the Louisiana coastline.
Van Bael said that Keiana’s experiments in her lab are testing the toxicity of those aldehydes to bacteria in the water that are beneficial to the plants as well as for breaking down oil from a spill.
“What I did at Tulane was get roots from those grasses and isolate the bacteria from the grass. In observing the interaction of the bacteria ... and the toxins, the bacteria is dying or slowing growth,” Keiana said. It’s proving, she added, that the toxins are responsible for the decline of the important grasses.
The toxins also have negative implications for the seafood industry, she added.
Keiana intends to expand the project in college, working on ways to neutralize the toxins. “Now that I’ve proven they have a negative affect, we need a way to get rid of them,” she said. “Even if it goes into grad school, that’s what I want to do.”
And chances seem good that she will. “I’m really impressed with her,” Van Bael said. “It’s clear she’s going places very fast.”
Added Keiana: “Oil spills are going to continue happening. We can't prevent that, but we can reverse the affect on marine life.”