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Olivia Hallisey  

Winner of the 2015 Google Science Fair For Inventing a New Way to Test for the Ebola Virus

Many guidance counselors will tell you that junior year is the most important in high school, when it comes to getting into the college of your choice. And while for most of us that means loading up on some APs, trying to land a leadership position in the extracurricular activity of our choice, and doing some extra community service, for Olivia Hallisey that was the bare minimum. As a junior at her Connecticut high school, Olivia, 17, won the 2015 Google Science Fair for inventing a new way to test for the Ebola virus. Last fall, when the swiftly spreading disease dominated the news cycle, Olivia saw a need for effective and widespread testing. “If you’re able to diagnose someone before they show symptoms, and isolate them, then they’re not contagious. That’s the best way to limit the spread,” she says. The problem with existing tests was that they were expensive to produce, not portable, and required electricity. On top of that, they all depended on being kept at a certain temperature — something hard to guarantee in countries where national health infrastructure isn’t well established.

Luckily, that’s where Olivia put her mind to work. Her winning design is portable, inexpensive (about $5 to produce in bulk compared to $1,000), temperature independent (meaning it doesn’t require constant refrigeration), and visual. She likes to say it’s "sort of like a pregnancy test for Ebola," which is easier for people to read. And even though Ebola isn't on the tip of everyone's tongue anymore, Olivia's invention can be applied further than the disease it was originally intended for. Her diagnostic could also be used for Zika, Lyme disease, and even slightly less scary (but no less affecting) illnesses like Celiac's — which Olivia herself has.

After taking home the top prize from Google, Olivia's had the chance to do a few things most teenagers can only dream about. Her win earned her an invite to the annual Bal des Debutantes in Paris (her first trip to the City of Lights), where she wore a light blue, feathered, Giambattista Valli Haute Couture gown. She also appeared on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert and was named one of Time magazine's 30 most influential teens. But those didn't top the list. "I think the coolest thing I've done was meet President Obama," she says, of her visit to the White House Science Fair. "That was amazing." And when she's not meeting world leaders, it's equally important to her to spend time with the little people — literally. "I was able to speak at a preschool in my town," Olivia says. "I really like talking to kids and seeing how inspired they are and I’m so inspired by them from hearing about their ideas. I think it’s really fun when you go into these STEM classes that start really young; they don’t really understand all the roadblocks that adults see, they just see a problem and think of the simplest solution and I think they’re all genius.”

Her busy post-Science Fair schedule doesn’t mean she’s given up on her other activities though. Olivia’s also a competitive swimmer, which she partially credits with her success. “I think that swimming makes me so time efficient,” she says. “I don’t think I would do this without swimming.” She credits being able to push herself physically in the pool as what makes her so set to push herself mentally outside of it. Clearly it’s paying off. She also spends some of her precious free time (we’re honestly not sure how she has any) volunteering with a nonprofit organization that provides clinical care and research funding for women’s reproductive and maternal health.

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