Rising Star: Hannah Herbst

Intel ISEF Phoenix Arizona Society for Science & the Public STEM SSP international science competition

A hospitalization in the family helps inspire an FAU senior to develop a pioneering medical technology

It’s not every day you hear that the next big idea came out of a sharkskin biomechanics lab, but for 19-year-old Hannah Herbst, that’s exactly where her patent-pending invention was born.

At the time, her father was in the hospital with a surgical site infection after undergoing emergency surgery for colon cancer. A senior (yes, a senior) at Florida Atlantic University, Herbst was studying the properties of sharkskin when it occurred to her that the antibacterial properties in it could help patients like her father.

After more than 200 tests, she created a bandage inspired by the composition of sharkskin. Hospital-acquired infections account for 1.7 million infections—and are associated with 99,000 deaths—each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Herbst had something in her hands that could potentially help them.

“It can interrupt the settlements of bacteria,” she explains. “That’s something that I proved through my research and ended up finding to be very successful when I used it on the bandage.”

She entered her work into a science fair, which sent her to the International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix, Ariz., the largest pre-collegiate STEM competition in the world. The event drew 1,842 young people from 80 countries, regions and territories to compete for more than $5 million in awards.

Her bandage won first place in the translational medical sciences category—no small feat, as it’s a category with a large number of entrants.

“For us, the most interesting part was the development of an antibacterial and reusable bandage inspired by sharkskin,” says Maya Ajmera, the president and CEO of the Society for Science and the Public. “It has an enormous effect on several industries, including reducing costs in the health industry. It reduces medical waste, and most importantly it reduces rates of infection globally.

“She’s got a pretty extraordinary trajectory ahead of her.”

BRIGHT FUTURE

Hannah Herbst became a full-time college student at just 15 through dual enrollment, and she has been studying management information systems at Florida Atlantic University. She just graduated, and is looking toward a career in the information security field.

And it wasn’t Herbst’s first rodeo at the fair—it was her third time qualifying to attend. During her freshman and sophomore years of high school, she brought her BEACON energy collection device and then a chemical identification device. While she didn’t win at the fair, her inventions led her to being named America’s Top Young Scientist, an inclusion in Forbes’ 30 Under 30, a meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House, and a TEDx Talk.

During her junior year, when her father was sick, she didn’t even want to go into the lab or enter any contests. Luckily, her mentor, Dr. Marianne Porter, changed her mind.

“When my dad first got diagnosed I wasn’t going to the lab. I had no interest in going back,” she says. “[Porter] ended up emailing me at the beginning of the summer and said, ‘Hannah, you came up with this great idea, try to do it.’ If not for her emailing me, I wouldn’t have gotten back.

“That led to something incredible. I’m forever grateful for her believing in me even when I didn’t want to believe in myself.”

This story is from the March 2020 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.