One Student’s Journey to Solve Water

“It’s important to get more people from different backgrounds involved in advancing innovation in water. The more diverse we are, the more powerful we can be.”

Diana is still in school, but has done more than many twice her age. In 2019, she was awarded the Diploma of Excellence at the Stockholm Junior Water Prize competition. Xylem is global founding sponsor of the event, part of the company’s commitment to engaging and inspiring the next generation of water innovators. Here Diana makes a strong case for science- and technology-driven action to solve water.

When I was around twelve, I began to read a lot in the news about global warming, flooding and climate change. Like anyone in my generation, it made me worried, but instead of hiding from the situation, I wanted to find some answers.

I started by sending emails to world leaders and scientists like Stephen Hawking. Then I took a trip to a major city in Southeast Asia with my mum and couldn’t believe the pollution and blackness of the rivers in the suburbs. This wasn’t news on the TV - it was reality. So when I got back to my home in Slovakia, I decided it wasn’t enough to be concerned.

I want my children and all children to say “I live on a planet with beautiful clear rivers and fresh drinking water.” To help make that possible, I had to do something. So I taught myself how to use quantum chemistry software, looking to find a way to clean water cheaply and efficiently.

In a lot of countries, people store their water in containers outdoors, or on rooftops, where sunlight interacts with organic molecules, spoiling the water. I discovered a new type of photo catalyst that absorbs radiation from the light, producing hydroxyl radicals that eliminate these harmful molecules. Unlike existing solutions, it works without needing UV reactors, so it can be used to clean large quantities of water, including rivers.

It took me more than three years to master the process, finding the right photocatalyst. My work synthesizing it led to two scholarships in the UK - where I am now completing my final year, in London. Most excitingly, I had the honor of winning the 2019 Diploma of Excellence at the Stockholm Junior Water Prize competition, and a Danish company is now using the technology in practice.

Unprecedented Opportunity to Solve Water

My experience so far has shown me the extent of the problem, but also the size of the opportunity. Travelling with my mum I’ve visited around 55 countries. We keep seeing the same problems in terms of access to resources, ranging from unpolluted air to clean water. Some people didn’t even seem to know their water was toxic. This is where education is key - and science can turn a problem into a solution. We have the answers. Let’s use what we know.

We should be using new software and technologies to make a practical difference and encouraging more students to get into science and engineering. Especially women. If I had one thing to say to any young woman considering that path, I’d say, “Don’t be afraid.” It’s absolutely normal to be a female studying engineering. It’s important to get more people and people from different backgrounds involved in advancing innovation in water. The more diverse we are, the more powerful we can be and the easier it will be to solve these problems.

Winning the Diploma of Excellence in Stockholm validated my role as a woman in science. It showed me that I was on the right track. It gave me the realization that what I was doing made sense, and a difference – that really motivated me. Plus I met other students who wanted to use science to help the environment. My work definitely has a future - and so does our planet.

We just have to act.

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Xylem and the Stockholm Junior Water Prize

Xylem is proud to be a global founding sponsor of the Stockholm Junior Water Prize, a competition for students aged 15 to 20 who have developed school projects that can solve major water challenges. Established in 1997, the competition attracts thousands of entries from 38 countries and has become a popular part of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI)’s World Water Week. Due to COVID-19, the 2020 edition will be held online. The winners will be announced during a royal award ceremony on August 25th. The Prize’s Patron, H.R.H. Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden, will then present the Prize to the winning team.

Xylem is committed to championing the next generation of water innovators and stewards. We educate, raise awareness, engage, support and strive to ignite the passion of young people to solve water. In addition to sponsoring the Stockholm Junior Water prize, we sponsor the EarthEcho Water Challenge Ambassador program and Manchester City Young Leaders program, among other programs and activities.

Hear Xylem President and CEO Patrick Decker talk about the critical role that today’s youth will play in solving water.

by Diana Virgovičova