Malnutrition is the leading cause of death for children globally and Lillian Petersen, a senior at Los Alamos High School, along with her partner Garyk Brixi of Maryland, is doing something about it.
They created computer software that can help inform aid organizations on the most effective way to treat malnourished children. Malnutrition is a clinical illness that can be treated with specialized pastes, called ready-to-use foods, that meet specific nutritional requirements. Although this treatment is effective, it is currently costly due to expensive ingredients, inefficient supply chains, and misaligned policy.
Petersen and Brixi created a three-part project to address these shortcomings. In the first phase, Petersen said, they predicted acute malnutrition prevalence across sub-Saharan Africa. In part two, they optimized recipes that use local, plant-based ingredients to produce low-cost ready-to-use foods. Third, they develop a tool to optimize the supply chain network of acute malnutrition treatment.
Their work has not only garnered attention from several international aid organizations but also earned several awards.
Petersen said their project earned first place in this year’s New Mexico Supercomputing Challenge and it earned third place at the International Science and Engineering Fair in May in Phoenix, Ariz.
Additionally, she said she and Brixi won prizes from the U.S. Agency of International Development, Sigma Xi Scientific Research Honor Society and the King Abdul-Aziz and His Companions Foundation for Giftedness and Creativity.
Petersen and Brixi hope that their research can help aid and donor organizations improve their supply logistics and test the feasibility of alternative recipes. For example, the supply chain model could recommend countries that are most suitable for local production.
Petersen explained she and Brixi, now a student at Harvard College, met at a national science competition a year and a half ago. They discovered that their work was similar and decided to combine their efforts to help children suffering from malnutrition in Africa.
Even though the competitions are finished, the work continues on the project. The optimized recipes were published in the peer-reviewed journal Maternal and Child Nutrition and they recently submitted the supply chain model to World Development.
Petersen said she and Brixi are collaborating with several international aid organizations. Last year, the optimized recipes were prototyped in Kenya and were found to meet all macronutrient requirements after official testing. Funds permitting, the recipes will soon begin clinical trials and move into production.
Petersen said she has enjoyed working with Brixi on this project.
“I think it was really great to have someone to collaborate with because we could bounce ideas off each other and focus on different parts at different times,” she said.
They did this work on their own without any mentors, but Petersen said they did consult with a couple of international aid organizations to make sure their tool would be of use and that they were heading in the right direction.
She encourages her peers to get involved in these science and engineering competitions.
“I think that science fair is a great way to gain experience in science, if that is what people are interested in,” Petersen said. “I think people should follow their passion, and if their passion is in science … it can be really fun and exciting.”
When Petersen looks toward her own future, she hopes to go into research and science.
“The development of new technologies, medicines, and global networks has the possibility to alleviate hunger, prevent disease, educate the poor, and make a positive impact on millions of lives,” she said.
She wants to align technological advancements with international aid.