Student scientists win big using food waste to make organic hair dye

Bernalillo High School team wins $5,000 prize and impresses Laboratory judges at 2022 New Mexico Governor’s STEM Challenge

December 22, 2022

Student scientists from Bernalillo High School.

Student scientists from Bernalillo High School earned a $5,000 cash prize awarded by Los Alamos National Laboratory judges in the New Mexico Governor’s STEM Challenge with their project, “Beta vulgaris and Fragaria ananassa as alternatives to hair dye.”

The STEM Challenge, a competition testing students’ ability to use science, technology, engineering and math to solve real-world problems, was a collaboration among the New Mexico Public Education Department, New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions, New Mexico State University, the Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation and 28 other STEM employers in the state.

Each employer supplied at least two judges to evaluate all the projects and selected a single team for their organization’s award, which is $500 cash per student.

The challenge

More than 400 students from public, private and charter secondary schools statewide created presentations or prototypes answering the challenge question, “Imagine New Mexico as a state known for its sustainable and green manufacturing. What innovations or developments could foster our schools, jobs and communities?”

The Bernalillo High team recognized that food waste amounts to 108 billion pounds per year and that conventional hair dyeing methods have carcinogenic properties when tested on laboratory animals. Their solution was to convert waste beets and strawberries into safe, organic, temporary hair dye.

“The project was really creative. And as someone who dyes her hair, it was extra appealing,” said Los Alamos judge Katie Rodarte, a post-master’s student in the Biosecurity Division who studies epidemiology. “When we met them, it was cool to see the teamwork side of it and how excited they were about their project.”

Mashing and mixing for real results

In a meticulously documented procedure, the Bernalillo High team mashed varying quantities of beets and strawberries, mixed the paste with lemon juice and organic honey, then tested the protypes on light, medium and dark hair types. The result was a semi-permanent pink tint that lasted a few days.

“Judging the competition was rewarding,” said another Los Alamos judge, Kevin Krause, a waste-management professional who monitors the institution’s compliance with environmental regulations. “I had never even thought of a project like this, and I thought it was great that their product was made of what would otherwise be in the garbage.”

The prize-winning students are: Clovis Barbour, Alena Grife, Jaqueline Legarda, Sujey Legarda, Sugey Najera, Harluz Angel Malabanan, Alexis Prairie, Erika Castro Ramirez, Olivia Tsabetsaye and Alexander Vigil.

Additional judges from the Laboratory included Monica Martinez-Archuleta, Jere Ann Freeh and Alexander Cleveland. Los Alamos National Laboratory employees volunteer at educational and nonprofit events year-round, logging thousands of community service hours annually.