22 March 2015

Water is Power: My Stroll with Cynthia Lam


The 2015 theme for World Water Day is Water and Sustainable Development, and on this day we are reminded that;

Water is Health—clean hands can save your life

Water is Nature—ecosystems lie at the heart of the Global water cycle

Water is Urbanization—every week one million people move into cities

Water is Industry—more water is used a manufacture a car than to fill a swimming pool.

Water is Energy—water and energy are inseparable friends

Water is Food—to produce two steaks, you need 15,000 litres of water

Water is Equality—everyday women spend millions of hours carrying water [1]

Today's guest, Cynthia Lam, was a 2014 Google Science Fair Finalist for her invention, H2prO, that aims to purify wastewater and produce hydrogen to generate electricity sustainably through photocatalysis. Cynthia's dream is to solve two of the world's major problems, Power and shortage of clean water, using one small, practical, and cost-effective device.

In course of this stroll, Cynthia and I discuss possible solutions to the world's water problem; her future plans for H2prO, and much more. Here's our conversation;

Ebenezar: Thank you for your time, Cynthia; it’s a pleasure having you on the stroll.

Cynthia: Thanks, Ebenezar! It’s my honour to be here.

Ebenezar: In preparation for this stroll, I did some research about Water and the Water Cycle. I discovered about 71% of the Earth's surface is water-covered, and the oceans hold about 96.5% of all Earth's water. Which means we have about 3.5% or so moving around for consumption. Isn’t this rather scary? Especially when you consider that this 3% is depleting…

Cynthia: I totally agree. That’s why it is so important to realise the fact that we all need to act now to save water, save life.

Ebenezar: What are some factors leading to the reduction of drinkable on Earth?

Cynthia: One of the main causes is water pollution. Did you know that in developing countries, around 70% of the untreated industrial waste is released to the water bodies where they pollute the usable water supply? Apart from water contamination, the increasing demand of water is also another main factor. If we don’t do something about it, there will be more than 780 million people lacking access to drinkable water in the future.

Ebenezar: How do you think we can solve this problem?

Cynthia: As the technology is getting more advanced, there’re more and more innovative solutions to water contamination. From large-scale to portable, there are concepts such as biosand, solar stills and devices that apply photocatalysis technology like my H2prO. Regarding the escalating demand of water, the least everyone can do about it is to start treasuring this precious resource. “If you want to change the world, start with yourself.” The first thing we can all do to help save our planet earth is to stop taking our wonderful resources for granted.

Ebenezar: So March 22nd is World Water Day, and theme for this year’s observance is “Water and Sustainable Development”. What advice can you give to citizens and Leaders around the World as regards the sustainable use of water for development?

Cynthia: Clean water is seen as a luxury to many in underdeveloped countries, but sadly we often take such a valuable gift for granted. I think we should all use this chance to reflect on our lifestyle – are water fountains really necessary? Do we really need a pool in our backyard? Are our showers a bit too long? Do everything you can to minimize your water use!

Ebenezar: Can you tell us a bit about H2prO, its composition, and how it works? Especially for most of us who have just high school chemistry…

Cynthia: Sure! So basically, H2prO is a portable device that aims to purify wastewater and to produce hydrogen to generate electricity sustainably through photocatalysis. What’s great about combining the two 'reactions’ together is that the organic pollutant in wastewater does not simply get decomposed but can also act as reductant to increase the rate of hydrogen produced. The process itself is self-sustainable – no additional power source is needed but sunlight and titania photocatalyst.

Ebenezar: Is it possible to implement this project on a large scale, and perhaps solve electricity problems in large communities in regions without power?

Cynthia: What you just said was actually the aim of this project! To be honest, the design still isn’t perfect and it still can’t produce a sufficient amount of electricity at the current stage, but the technology could potentially solve the lack of energy as well as water in underdeveloped communities in a large scale. I really hope I can keep improving my device, so one day it can really help give underprivileged people an affordable and sustainable source of energy. Although there’s still a long way to go, I’m really glad I took my first step.

Ebenezar: What kind of external support do you need to take H2prO to the next level? 

Cynthia: I’d really need a well-facilitated lab. I didn’t really have a proper mentor or any external resources when I did my research. I paid for most of the materials myself and I self-taught myself most of the theories, so it was a bit of a struggle even though it was a challenging and exciting experience. However, to take my research to the next level, I really need some technical support.

Cynthia, during Childhood

Ebenezar: Can you tell us a bit about your childhood, and what got you interested in Science?

Cynthia: My childhood was pretty ordinary, but I do have two fun, open-minded parents who allowed their child to freely explore her potential. Mom and Dad love traveling so I kind of inherited their wanderlust. Frankly speaking, I don’t think there’s one thing that suddenly got me interested in Science, but I’ve always been quite adventurous and I love learning new things. I had a science kit when I was around 4 or 5 and I once wouldn’t leave my house without my little magnifying glass! 

Ebenezar: You’re 17 right? 

Cynthia: I just turned 18 last October! But I was 17 as I was working on this research.

Ebenezar: Okay, closer and closer to adulthood, you know I’m always curious when I meet outstanding teens, and I’m just wondering, do you also face the same challenges teenage girls around the world face? Like choosing the right Makeup; having to deal with boys; and having disagreements with parents? (Lol)

Cynthia: Haha, of course I do! Even nerds can have a hard time choosing the right dress for formal. I’m just an ordinary 18-year-old, who watches quite a lot of television, loves hanging out with friends and enjoys traveling – perhaps with just an extra hint of nerdiness. 

Cynthia with her parents at the Google Science Fair

Ebenezar: How supportive has Mum and Dad being so far in most of your projects? Do they support this path you’ve taken?

Cynthia: My mum and dad are amazingly supportive and loving. When I was doing my research last year, I was also quite swamped by my studies (it was my final year in high school) as well as my piano diploma exam during that time. You’d think that they would tell me to focus on my studies instead of spending so much effort on a seemingly random project. But in fact, after knowing my thoughts, they were as excited as I was! Their unfailing support and encouragement gave me the confidence to freely explore Science as well as to explore myself.

Ebenezar: I hear you were also part of the 15 Finalists for the 2014 Google Science Fair, any competition plans for 2015?

Cynthia: Not really. Although I’d love to take part in the Google Science Fair again, my 2015’s a filled with other plans! I’ll start studying Medicine in the University of Hong Kong this September and before that, I’m going to feed my wanderlust. I really look forward to doing things I’ve never done and making new friends in places I’ve never been!

Cynthia(5th from right) with other GSF 14 Finalists

Ebenezar: Last year, I also strolled with Sophie, Emer, and Ciara, the 2014 Google Science Fair champs, and it’s really exciting to see many more women pushing the frontiers in Science and Technology. Do you have any female mentors or role models?

Cynthia: Sophie, Emer and Ciara are real champs! Although unlike them, I don’t have any female mentors, I do have a few female role models. I’ve always been inspired by Rita Levi-Montalcini and Rosalind Franklin's perseverance in Science. Both of them made a lifelong contribution to the Science and Technology field and to me, nothing’s more admiring than their dedication. Rita Levi-Montalcini once said, “Do not think of yourself, think of others. Think of the future that awaits you, think about what you can do and do not fear anything.” This constantly reminds me of the importance of using our strengths and gifts to help the less fortunate ones.

Ebenezar: Do you think more girls should be encouraged to do STEM subjects; you know girls really like fun-barbie-stuff, is Science really fun? 

Cynthia: An absolute YES! I mean, I also loved barbies, teddy bear and all that, but that didn’t contradict my passion for Science. However, it somehow seems to be a norm that girls should only be playing house and with baby dolls while boys are to play with robots and other more ‘sciencey’ things. The fact is girls are also capable of doing Science! STEM projects are really fun and shouldn’t be exclusive to boys only. Just look at how many of the GSF 2014 finalists were girls – that absolutely says something! 

Ebenezar: Okay, Thank you so much once again for your time Cynthia, it was a pleasure talking to you. I wish you all the best in 2015.

Cynthia: Thank you for having me. I wish the same to you! 


Food For the Soul: "At once Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and start back across to Bethsiada. But he stayed until he sent the crowds away. Then he told them goodbye and went up on the other side of the mountain to pray. Later in the evening he was still there by himself, and the boat was somewhere in the middle of the lake. He could see that the disciples were struggling hard, because  they were rowing against the wind. Not long before morning, Jesus came toward them. He was walking on water, and he was about to pass the boat.

When the disciples saw Jesus walking on water they thought he was a ghost and they started screaming. All of them saw him and they were terrified. But at that same time he said, 'Don't worry! I am Jesus. Don't be afraid" (Mark 6v45-50, CEV)

(Image Credit: Cynthia Lam, UNICEF)


1-- World Water Day, UN Water, http://www.unwater.org/worldwaterday

This stroll was done to #Observe #WorldWaterDay2015

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