From left, Greely High School students Mai Lo-Knutti, Christopher Gilbert, Celio Forbes and Adele Weaver discuss the chemistry of PFAs with an expert at the University of Maine. Contributed / Andrew Fersch

Five Greely High School students are state winners in Samsung’s Solve for Tomorrow science competition for their work to create a more efficient filtration system to combat PFAS in drinking water.

In winning the state title, Mai Lo-Knutti, Christopher Gilbert, Celio Forbes, Adele Weaver and Lauren Dennen earned $14,500 for technology in the Cumberland-North Yarmouth school district. Over the next two weeks, they will finalize their filtration system prototype and complete a three-minute video on the project to submit for consideration as a national finalist in the competition.

“It feels really cool to be a state finalist,” Gilbert said. “It’s kind of amazing that we were able to do it. We put a lot of effort in, and it paid off.”

Christopher Gilbert and Lauren Dennen discuss water filtration prototypes. Contributed / Andrew Fersch

PFAs, or “forever chemicals,” have become a top environmental issue in Maine, and the state is currently in the process of developing safety standards to protect the food supply from them. They make up a class of over 9,000 manmade chemicals used since the 1950s in industrial and household products like waterproof clothing, non-stick cookware, and firefighting foam. They have been linked to cancer, kidney malfunction, immune system suppression and other health issues.

To learn about the science behind PFAS, the students sought the assistance of University of Maine professors Dr. Onur G. Apul and Dr. Manisha Choudhary.

“It was super cool working with them,” Gilbert said. “It’s always great to talk to people, especially in science, who know a ton about what they do.”


The students are now working with Emerging Compounds Treatment Technologies in Portland on their filtration system prototype, which is designed to be more effective by giving water more time to filter.

Simply filtering water before it goes into a storage tank is inefficient, the students say, because the stored water needs to be filtered regularly. Their filter is designed to be located inside water storage tanks.

“The ultimate goal is to have the prototype be useful to people,” Gilbert said. “If it is successful and is able to filter and is more effective than other filtering methods, it would be great to have it be used.”

The national Solve for Tomorrow contest recognizes student groups that come up with innovative solutions to community problems.

At Greely, the Solve for Tomorrow initiative is entirely student led, said Pathways Coordinator Andrew Fersch, who calls himself an “assistant” to the student group. Since starting their work in November, the students have come up with all their own ideas and have completed the research themselves. Their focus is not on a contest prize, Fersch said, but on what their project can offer to the community.

“That’s my dream as a teacher, to have what the world gets from what we’re doing be the thing students care about,” Fersch said. “That’s a really beautiful thing to see.”

National finalists will be announced April 18, and finalists will travel to New York City to present their prototype in person. The national winners will receive funding for their schools.

“It’s an authentic project where they’re actually creating something that would provide a positive benefit to society,” Fersch said. “Just the fact that young people are thinking about that is heartening.”

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