High school student wins senior grand champion for research conducted at Fort Valley State

Published By: Latasha Ford September 6, 2023

Houston County High School student Vageesh Degala uses nanotechnology to produce a value-added product from biomass waste material in Fort Valley State University’s Nanotechnology Laboratory.

The opportunity to gain research experience in Fort Valley State University’s (FVSU) Nanotechnology Laboratory earned Houston County High School senior Vageesh Degala the title of senior grand champion at the 2023 Houston Regional Science and Engineering Fair for his science project.

Degala was also selected as a finalist to represent Georgia at the 2023 Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Dallas, Texas.

“I have always been interested in science, especially in producing sustainable eco-friendly value-added products,” he said. “Fort Valley was the perfect place to work on my project because they had exactly what I was looking for research wise.”

The aspiring scientist first connected with Dr. Hari Singh, FVSU professor and chair of the Department of Agricultural Sciences in the College of Agriculture, Family Sciences and Technology. Having prior knowledge of Singh’s research, Degala expressed interest in working in his laboratory. Singh served as a mentor and helped Degala learn how to think like a scientist.

“I learned advanced research like the implementation of nanotechnology,” Degala said. He worked on FVSU’s campus throughout his holiday break in December 2022 and after school in January 2023.

His educational research experience included exploring the benefits of using nanotechnology in extracting cellulose from biomass waste and developing a value-added product, such as wound dressings. The 16-year-old focused his research on analyzing whether nanocomposite hydrogel wound dressings, while combined with metallic nanoparticles such as silver (Ag) and copper (Cu), will provide effective antimicrobial activity.

“The use of bio-based materials increases the pressure on agriculture to produce biomass,” Degala explained. “As a result, a huge amount of biomass waste is generated. This biomass can be successfully used to extract the cellulose nanofibers and turn into a valuable product.”

He added adopting the principles of reduce, reuse and recycle for biomass waste can contribute to environmental protection.

“We found cellulose silver nanoparticles (AgNPs) hydrogel reduced the E. coli population in comparison to cellulose copper nanoparticles (CuNPs) hydrogels. Zone of inhibition of wound healing dressings showed AgNPs (dry) as strongly effective, which is what we were hoping for,” Degala described.

The young scientist emphasized the significance of this research. “It has the potential to make a meaningful impact on individuals. AgNPs nanocomposite hydrogels could serve as promising materials for wound dressings,” he expressed.

Degala’s research earned him the senior grand prize. “Winning the senior grand prize for my research was something I never thought would come true,” he admitted. “Receiving this honor is an enormous advantage. I am delighted I had the opportunity to present my findings to the scientific community and about the prospect of bringing these wound dressings into commercial use.”

In addition to this notable achievement, Degala was honored with the Inspiring Excellence Inc. Award, the Regeneron Biomedical Award, the Biomedical & Health Sciences Award, the United States Air Force Award, the Office of Naval Research-United States Navy & Marine Corps Award, the National Geographic Society Award and the FVSU Award.

Dr. Hari Singh, FVSU professor and chair of the Department of Agricultural Sciences, mentors Degala in the Nanotechnology Laboratory.

Appreciative of his awards, Degala said this is not the reason he conducted the research. He noted the learning experience he gained working with Singh and his team was more valuable than any prize.

“I want to thank Dr. Singh and his team for being my mentors in the lab. They guided me through all my research,” Degala said.

He added this experience boosted his confidence and will help him in pursuing a science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related degree in college and in his future career contributing to society through research.

Singh was impressed with Degala’s diligence and dedication in the lab. “It changed how he thinks, which is the biggest reward for me,” he said. “That will give him leverage in other subject areas, not only research. It is an overall accomplishment that will help him succeed in his educational career.”