Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship

CIE News

Friday Feature: Mary Jaskowiak and Fecal Finders

by Nikki Kroushl on December 16, 2016

Discovery Forum winners

Photo of Discovery Forum winners by the Institute for Emerging Issues via Twitter. Mary Jaskowiak in center.

Mary Jaskowiak is a senior in the UNCW Honors College with a major in environmental science and a minor in biology. On November 30th, 2016, she successfully defended her Honors thesisa method for testing water quality by locating optical brighteners, which are found in laundry detergent and can be used to track human waste that has leaked into natural waters.

But defending her Honors thesis wasn't the first time Jaskowiak presented in front of a crowd. She has presented her research at regional academic conferences and, more recently, at the Discovery Forum hosted by the Institute for Emerging Issues at the CIE, an annual competition encouraging young entrepreneurs with startup ideas that would generate positive social change.

"I heard [friends] talking about it, but I didn't even think about applying it to my research," Jaskowiak said. "But I was in class and my teacher had one of her students in the Discovery Forum, so she was urging us to apply. And it hit me that, you know, I'd talked about making a kit for my research, that would kind of be a business that you'd have to market and sell."

"The main point of my research," Jaskowiak added, "is finding inexpensive methods [for testing water quality] that everyone can afford—even small, rural areas, underprivileged areas, possibly even other nations. So that's the social good aspect, too." She was clearly a perfect candidate for the Discovery Forum.

Jaskowiak's five-minute pitch was voted the top presentation by attendees. As one of the top three entrepreneurs, Jaskowiak will join NCSU's Emerging Issues Institute for a leadership conference in the spring, where she will compete for $10,000 toward her idea's development.

"It was cool because most of the time I'm trying to explain more of the science to people," Jaskowiak said. "But [the Discovery Forum] allowed me to focus on some of the other aspects and the practical uses of my research, which is more fun to talk to an audience about."

She also presented at one of the Cucalorus CONNECT Port City Pitches.

Jaskowiak's research focuses on optical brighteners. These fluoresce and thus are easily trackable. They are found in waste water from washing machines, which is disposed of in the same way as waste water from toilets. Find optical brighteners in natural water, and there is a good chance that you'll find human waste, too. The real problem was separating the brighteners from other, natural fluorescents in water, but Jaskowiak was able to develop a process using solid phase extraction to successfully pinpoint optical brighteners in natural waters. Her pitch presentation's title, "Fecal Finders," is aptly funny, gross, and straightforward.

Jaskowiak and Dr. Cahoon are currently working on improving their methods and adapting them to be used in the field, and next semester she'll work with her mentors on quantifying the economic value of clean water before she graduates in May.

"It was a long process," she said, "but it's had good results."

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