LOS LUNAS — Gianna Nilvo finished her junior year strong at School of Dreams Academy after securing a spot at two national research competitions this year — both for her engineered device with far-reaching potential for both consumers and the environment.

Felina Martinez | News-Bulletin photo
Gianna Nilvo, who will begin her senior year at School of Dreams Academy in August, developed a prototype that detects and isolates acidic chemicals.

Nilvo’s prototype detects and isolates acidic chemicals poured into the device. The intent is for this device to go under people’s sinks to prevent harmful chemicals poured down the drain from getting into the environment.

When chemicals are poured down the drain, they usually end up at wastewater treatment plants. Nilvo said despite this, a lot of the chemicals still end up going back into the environment and coming back to people.

“There’s research being done by other scientists who take samples of the water right after it comes out of the treatment plant who say they’re still finding chemicals,” Nilvo said.

“So what my prototype does is when chemicals are poured down, there’s a pH probe indicator that reads the pH levels of the liquids going down. It’s coded in a way that when it detects acidic levels, it diverts the chemicals into a holding tank and the neutral, basic mixtures will go back into the wastewater,” she said.

Nilvo said she used common, acidic household items such as bleach, vinegar and soda as testing subjects to pour into her prototype. Her project then takes it a step further by making use of the acidic chemicals, as the chemicals held in the holding tank can then be used to make biodiesel.

“This is a way for people to be able to benefit not only themselves, but you’re helping the environment in the long run too because biodiesel doesn’t release harmful emissions, and you’re reusing these acidic chemicals in a way that will not harm the environment,” Nilvo said.

In March, four SODA high school students, including Nilvo, attended the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium (JSHS) held at the University of New Mexico. Students from Colorado, Texas and New Mexico presented their STEM research in various categories.

JSHS is a U.S. Department of Defense sponsored STEM program that encourages high school students to conduct original research in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Nilvo took sixth place overall, which qualified her for the National JSHS competition in Virginia Beach, Va., which she attended in April. At this competition, she won fourth place overall in the engineering category.

Recently, Nilvo was also made aware that she is the winner of New Mexico for the prestigious U.S. Stockholm Junior Water Prize. Only one person per state is selected as a winner and subsequently, she is now invited to attend the National SJWP competition that will be held at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colo., June 15-18.

Nilvo found being invited to two national competitions in the span of a semester shocking and nerve wracking, but also exciting because there are a lot of opportunities that open up through these competitions.

Nilvo has attended about 10 national competitions so far for projects related to animal science. However, this is her first year conducting an engineering and coding project for research competitions.

“Since sixth grade, I have been doing animal science projects and always said, ‘I’m going to be a vet!’ I’ve never coded before, and I’ll build things here and there, but I never really engineered and built something from scratch like this,” Nilvo said.

Post graduation, Nilvo is unsure if she wants to pursue engineering in college, but is hoping a coveted internship she won at JSHS with the UNM Engineering Department will help her decide. The internship began last week and focuses on engineering that helps the environment.

Nilvo is excited about this internship because it will give her the opportunity to work with UNM undergrads on research they are performing and will allow her to get a sense of what working in that field is like.

“Now I’ve kind of hit that point of, ‘OK, I always said I want to be a vet, but now I found I also love doing engineering.’ So hopefully, this internship will give me an idea of if it’s something I want to do or not,” she said.

Nilvo hopes to see more students get involved with STEM and research competitions.

“It benefits you a lot and opens a lot of doors,” she said. “It’s a lot of work. I’m not going to lie and say it isn’t, but the work can pay off if you do it right, do it well and if you are enthusiastic about what you’re doing. It’s going to help open doors and opportunities that you may not have been able to get otherwise.”

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Felina Martinez was born and raised in Valencia County. She graduated from the University of New Mexico in 2021. During her time at UNM, she studied interdisciplinary film, digital media and journalism. She covers the village of Los Lunas, Los Lunas Schools, the School of Dreams Academy and the town of Peralta.