Eighth grader Karen Garcia wins California State Science Fair for research on microplastics


Photo credit: Karen Garcia

Karen Garcia ’23 brought her project to the Archer STEM Symposium after winning the California State Science Fair. She researched the presence of microplastics in salt.

When Karen Garcia ’23 joined a middle school science X-block that helped students prepare for the LA County Science Fair, she was “excited.” But she did not know that her research on the presence of microplastics in sea salt would qualify her for the state science fair and eventually propel her to a first-place finish, marking the first time an Archer student has ever won the prize.

The California Science and Engineering Fair, which took place from April 29-30 at California Science Center, featured participants from over 400 schools.

Garcia came up with the idea for her experiment while browsing the internet one day. She saw a photo of marine life with microplastics inside, which led her to wonder whether microplastics are present in sea salt.

“I wanted to do something that involved a concept that nobody really knew about,” she said.

Garcia dissolved five types of salts in water, then used a vacuum filtration system to isolate microplastics from the salt and water combination. She then examined the filtered microplastics under a microscope and counted them to reach her final conclusion: that microplastics are present in both sea salt and rock salt.

“It was really difficult, [but] I was up to the challenge,” she said. “The judges [at the LA County fair] told me that I needed to quantify my data and add more trials…I persisted, and I did the work, and I’m very happy [about] the outcome.”

To prepare for her presentation, Garcia memorized the details of her experiment and focused on confidence.

“Having that positive attitude really helped me when I was presenting because I wasn’t really feeling nervous,” she said. “The judges created…a safe space where I could feel good while presenting.”

When middle school students conduct research for Lil SIS, the middle school STEM symposium, they are typically paired with partners.

“I didn’t have that this time,” she said. “I had to use my resources. I had to ask teachers about what to do and go online…I learned that being independent is sometimes a good thing.”

Brooke Surin, who taught the X-block for students interested in attending the LA County Science Fair, said that she was impressed by Garcia’s “endurance and perseverance.”

“The X-block was a large time commitment for these girls, so I think what really impressed me was that she stuck with it,” Surin said. “She worked very independently and always knew what she was doing, was very focused and blew me away.”

When asked what she would tell aspiring scientists, Garcia emphasized the importance of tenacity.

“Prepare yourself for something that you don’t expect,” she said. “Sometimes, during your experiment, things can fail. You can do really great and you have to do more work, or things can go wrong. So the advice that I would give would be to keep on going and to continue doing the work that you are doing.”