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18-year-old high school senior develops a test that can detect if a drink has been spiked

The 18-year-old wanted to bring about a change in the increasing number of drug-facilitated sexual assaults in educational institutions.

18-year-old high school senior develops a test that can detect if a drink has been spiked
Image Source: Society of Science

Stories about drug spiking and drug-facilitated sexual assaults on campuses have become increasingly common. Angie Fogarty, 18, was concerned and wanted to do something that could help women who find themselves in such dangerous situations. In 2021, she invented a sensor that could detect if one's drink has been spiked or not, reports Smithsonian Magazine. “I started crying, it was so exciting,” said Fogarty about her reaction when her experimentation proved fruitful.

She is now a senior at Greenwich High School in Greenwich, Connecticut. The sensor basically detects the presence of diphenhydramine (DPH), which is an ingredient in Benadryl that leads to drowsiness. The invention is meant to prevent drink-spiking and drug-facilitated sexual assaults.

Image Source: Society for Science
Image Source: Society of Science

Fogarty always wanted to work on a project on women's health. As she started looking for colleges, she kept seeing news about drink-spiking and drug-facilitated sexual assaults on different campuses. “It was so discouraging,” she said. “Unfortunately, a lot of young women and young people, in general, aren’t guaranteed this degree of safety that should be a basic right.”

The 18-year-old was particularly thinking about stopping drink spikes on campuses as she created her project. To use the test, one just needs to put a small amount of the beverage in a bottle, add a few drops of a PH adjuster until the liquid turns pale yellow and then put a dab of the solution on the sensor. It either turns red or green, depending on whether the liquid has DPH or not.

Image Source: Pexels/ Inga Seliverstova
Representative Image Source: Pexels/ Inga Seliverstova

It took time for Fogarty to create such a test; she called the period from November 2021 to March 2022 "the dark ages." She said that she did not have any time and "there was not a weekend, there was not a school break, not an evening that I wasn’t [working]."

First, she had to find out how to get the right reaction when DPH hit the sensor. She finalized a two-dye system wherein she puts two dyes—one green and one purple—on a small piece of cellulose paper. When a solution does not consist of DPH, the green dye dissolves in the solution, pulling it up and away from the paper so that it glows when hit by ultraviolet light. Moreover, the purple dye remains hidden underneath.



 

However, when the paper touches a DPH-contained solution, a chemical linkage forms between the green dye and the drug, dampening the expression of the dye and only letting the purple dye color come through. Under UV light, the sensor turns a red color.

It was a tough task to work with two dyes. “Whenever I would make an alteration to one of the dyes, it could negatively impact the other,” Fogarty said. “That’s why I was stuck for so long in the trial-and-error phase.” She tested "at least a hundred, probably more” different versions of the sensor before choosing the right formula.



 

Fogarty also wanted the sensor to be economically accessible and easy to use for people. "If you’re testing it in a dark room, which is most likely where you’d find yourself in these kinds of scenarios, it’s hard to be able to distinguish whether or not you have this faint line," Fogarty said. "That’s why I wanted to do the color system."

She thinks that there is another possible use for her test. She states that it could be used to detect pyrrole, a compound found in marijuana.

Fogarty's innovation made her one of 40 finalists in the 2023 Regeneron Scientific Talent Search, the country's oldest and most renowned high school scientific and math competition. As a finalist, Fogarty received $25,000 and wants to pursue patents and marketing for the sensor and its extended use. She also wants to set aside some money for her tuition at Washington University in St.Louis, where she wants to study biology to become a veterinarian.



 

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