NewsWomen's History Month 2024


'Representation in every field': Shawnee Mission West student nationally recognized for microplastics research

Elizabeth Barnes
Posted at 8:46 AM, Mar 26, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-26 09:46:05-04

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — Women’s History Month is a time to acknowledge the hardships and honor the successes of women past and present.

This month, Shawnee Mission West High School sophomore Elizabeth Barnes is being recognized nationally for her work toward a better future.

She’s creating research on microplastics on a scale that doesn’t exist anywhere else by quantifying microplastics in sand. Her research covers a large scope as she receives samples from Australia, Iceland and multiple cities in the U.S.

“My end goal is a way to remove microplastics from sand so that the sand we’re using in water filtration, glass, concrete, roads, everything, is safe for sand,” Elizabeth said.

Microplastics are millimeters in size and are harmful to the environment. Elizabeth said she chose sand because it's the "third most used natural resource after air and water."

“We use it every day, but we really don’t think about it,” she said. “Sand is what makes up 70% of concrete, so the building we’re in is almost entirely made up of sand.”

Elizabeth conducts most of her research at the Shawnee Mission School District’s Center for Academic Achievement.

She dedicates about 25 hours a week to research on top of keeping up with her honors classes and activities.

“I’m here a lot,” she joked.

Elizabeth's work has won multiple awards from entities like the Environmental Protection Agency and KC Air Waste and Water Management. She was also invited to compete at the International Science and Engineering Fair in Dallas.

In April, she’ll present at the National STEM Challenge in Washington, D.C.

“There are people who have like sports seasons, I have a science season where like the whole spring I’m just traveling for competitions,” she said.

Her research started as curiosity.

“I found that we don’t really know anything about how to quantify microplastics in sand in an efficient and cost-effective way,” she said.

Now, her work represents more than just her dreams; it’s for women and girls everywhere.

“I have a little sister who is in sixth grade, and every year, she wants to do a science project,” Elizabeth said. “So every year, I help her because I want to show her that anything she wants to do, she can.”

She said even if she is just the first to make progress, "If no one did anything, then no progress would be made."

Elizabeth plans to keep inspiring representation in the field while working toward a college degree, dreaming of working in an academic lab or starting a biotechnology company.