UNCW Student Wins $10,000 Challenge for Young Social Entrepreneurs

By Tricia Vance

UNCW senior Mary Jaskowiak ’17 won the latest BB&T Discovery Forum Series for developing an affordable, effective method for testing water quality using a substance found in laundry detergent. The project earned the $10,000 first prize in the competition for young social entrepreneurs.

Jaskowiak’s research, conducted under the supervision of UNCW biology and marine biology professor Larry Cahoon, helped her isolate optical brighteners in natural waters to detect human waste. She used the results of her research to develop the “Fecal Finders” project.

“Mary has displayed a really creative, entrepreneurial spirit in pursuing her ideas, and it’s nice to see her hard work moving toward fruition,” Cahoon said.

Brighteners in detergent have fluorescence and stick to clothing. Because wastewater from washing machines combines with raw household sewage, the presence of the detergent additive in a natural body of water means that human waste is also present.

By packing a typical laboratory tube full of cellulose, Jaskowiak was able to build an inexpensive toolkit that will allow local governments, public utilities, real estate companies and even individual homeowners to check for sewage system leaks into rivers, creeks and other waters. Cellulose attracts and isolates the optical brighteners.

The Discovery Forum enables social entrepreneurs ages 18-30 to pitch their products and connect with local leaders.

Jaskowiak is an Honors College student whose project drew on her honors thesis research with Cahoon. She also is a member of the inaugural class of Wilmington Fellows and was the recipient of two donor-funded research fellowships, the Ahuja Academy for Water Quality Fellowship and the Ann Sherman Skiba Undergraduate Fellowship.

“As a scientist, pitching at a business competition was definitely out of my comfort zone. However, Dr. Cahoon and the UNCW staff prepared me to do my best,” said Jaskowiak.

The competition, presented by the Institute for Emerging Issues at North Carolina State University in conjunction with BB&T and the BB&T Leadership Institute, began with regional events last fall. Jaskowiak competed at the UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which hosts the annual regional competition in partnership with Applied Learning.

The top three winners were chosen from among 16 finalists who pitched their ideas during the recent BB&T Leadership Symposium in Raleigh.

Activities that encourage students to apply their knowledge and gain practical experience to help prepare them to enter the work force align with priorities in UNCW’s Strategic Plan.

Jaskowiak, an environmental sciences major who will graduate in May, will use her $10,000 prize to design and develop a water testing kit and continue her research. She also is working with the Office of Innovation and Commercialization at UNCW to obtain a patent for her kit.