Nadya Dhillon stands in front of her research poster for the Regeneron Science Talent Search, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious STEM competition. | Courtesy of OPRF

When Nadya Dhillon was about 7 years old, she got her first chemistry set. Now a senior at Oak Park and River Forest High School, Dhillon ranks among the country’s brightest young scientists, having been named a Regeneron Science Talent Search scholar of 2023. Dhillon is one of only 5 students in Illinois and 300 in the country to receive the honor this year.

“It just feels good because I worked very hard,” said Dhillon, who was sitting in her economics class when she received the news. 

Regeneron STS has been referred to as the nation’s “oldest and most prestigious” pre-collegiate science and math competition. Established in 1942, several Regeneron STS scholars have gone on to reap major awards and accolades, including Lyons Township High School alumnus Ben Mottelson, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1975, and Robert Axelrod, who was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Barack Obama. Axelrod is an Evanston Township High School graduate. 

Dhillon will learn this week if she is among the 30 Regeneron STS finalists. If she is, she will travel to Washington D.C. in March and participate in a week-long competition for more than $1.8 million in awards. President George H.W. famously called the Regeneron STS finals “the Superbowl of science.”

As part of her Regeneron STS application, Dhillon submitted the findings of a research project where she discovered an all-around better way to sterilize surgical tools using a chemical solution of silver nitrite and methylene blue activated by red light. She began working on the project as a junior in OPRF’s Investigative Research Design and Innovation course taught by Allison Hennings, whom Dhillon referred to as “genuinely the best.” 

“I just could not have done this without her at all,” said Dhillon. “I’ve never had a teacher so dedicated to their students’ success.”

The objective of her research project was to reduce infections in patients by better eliminating antibiotic-resistant bacteria found on surgical instruments, particularly duodenoscopes, which are flexible, lighted tubes that doctors use to diagnose and treat problems in the pancreas and bile ducts. Bacteria often find a comfortable home in the nooks and crannies of duodenoscopes, which are difficult to completely clean.

“You have to use really expensive, time-consuming methods of sterilization and they don’t even work very well,” said Dhillon.

Medical professionals thread the duodenoscope through a patient’s mouth, throat and stomach, allowing them to view the top of the patient’s small intestine. If bacteria are present on the devices, it can be transmitted to patients and infect them. Duodenoscopes are used in more than 500,000 procedures each year, according to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

“Nadya has a genuine concern and passion for investigating novel solutions to some of our most pressing global public health challenges,” said Hennings. 

Due to the high cost of purchasing duodenoscopes, Dhillon made models of the devices onto which she formed bacterial biofilms. She then dipped her models into the chemical solution and put them under a red light, to activate the silver nitrite and methylene blue. Her innovative technique proved to eradicate antibiotic-resistant bacteria more effectively than traditional methods.

“And the nice thing is that it’s very cheap and very inexpensive and it’s not time consuming,” she said. “It can be used in remote areas of the world or in hospitals here.” 

The project was entirely her own work. Hennings told Wednesday Journal Dhillon independently designed and implemented her experiment, showing unwavering perseverance, creativity and ingenuity while addressing a “a true gap in current medical techniques.”

“I am so excited for the opportunity for Nadya to share her findings with a broader audience,” said Hennings.

Nadya and Mrs. Hennings | Courtesy of OPRF

Dhillon is taking Hennings’ class again this year and continuing to work on the project. Her sister Sahiba, who is 15 months Dhillon’s junior, is also in her class. They often get mistaken for twins. Dhillon credits her parents for instilling a sense of curiosity within her and her sister. 

Her mother, Dhillon recalled, spent a lot of time taking her and her sister to science museums. Her father did scientific experiments with the girls, finding entertaining ways to explain concepts and theories. As long as she and her sister put in their best efforts, grades don’t matter to mom and dad, according to Dhillon. 

Next year, she will begin studying chemistry and anthropology as a college student. Dhillon’s plan is to eventually become a medical doctor, like her hepatologist and gastroenterologist father, whom she said has been her “biggest influence” academically.

Like all good parents, they are very proud of their children. However, Dr. Sonu Dhillon believes his daughter’s medical aspirations stem from a more theatrical source than a familial one.

“As much as we’d like to take credit for it, I think ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ had more to do with her interest in medicine,” he joked. “She is obsessed with that show.”

Whether it was the long-running television show, which has been on TV for as long as Dhillon’s been alive, or something closer to home that sparked her passion, Dhillon is already making waves in the field of medical science. As for her childhood chemistry set, she still has it. 

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