Utah teen’s project on opioid crisis gains national attention

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OGDEN — A Utah teen’s science project on battling the opioid crisis is gaining national attention after earning a Top 30 spot in a national science competition.

The project is close to the heart of 14-year-old Mercedes Randhahn, who’s a freshman at St. Joseph Catholic High School.

“I had a friend and she committed suicide,” Randhahn said. “I don’t know if they were opioids exactly, but I know they were prescription drugs.”

In looking for ways to help make sure that wouldn’t happen to anyone else, she realized that many people never make the trip to drop boxes at police stations, to properly dispose of prescription drugs.

“It increases the likability of opioid overdosing, and accidental usage by children,” Randhahn said. “If people were able to dispose of their opioids properly like in a little packet, like you could treat the opioids and it would deactivate them, then you could hypothetically then take that packet and just throw it in the trash, and it wouldn’t have any environmental hazards whatsoever.”

An eighth grader at the time, Randhahn went to her chemistry teacher, Kory Ulle.

“I was impressed with how prepared she was when she first walked in the door, and cope with all the challenges that came across,” Ulle said. “At first I thought it was a little much, honestly. It seemed too much for an eighth grader to deal with.”

I had a friend and she committed suicide. I don’t know if they were opioids exactly, but I know they were prescription drugs.

–Mercedes Randhahn

Randhahn however, came prepared with ideas and a plan. She knew she couldn’t perform her tests on actual opioids, so she instead decided to focus her first efforts on something that has a similar molecular makeup — caffeine.

“Caffeine is an alkaloid cell, similar to an opioid because opioids are essentially made out of the chemical morphine, which are also alkaloid cells,” Randhahn said.

She showed how her experiments were performed inside the high school’s chemistry lab.

“For every one gram of caffeine dissolved in 50 milliliters of distilled water, I deactivated it with 200 milliliters of vinegar and four grams of carbon, mixed together,” Randhahn said.

In most cases, Randhahn said her experiment worked.


The project earned her a first-place win at a statewide science fair, which allowed her to enter the project into the national Broadcom MASTERS science competition, where she competed with more than 2,300 students from around the country.

She made the cut into the Top 300 and then got word that she made the Top 30.

“I was at a Baskin Robbins, after a soccer game,” Randhahn said. “I was just like screaming and crying. It was just like this whole display of chaos that was going on.”

Her spot in the Top 30 now gets her an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington D.C. for the competition, where students can win up to $25,000. Possibly more important though, it’s helped cement her love for science, especially chemistry.

“After doing this project, I have a great appreciation and love for chemistry,” Randhahn said. “It just makes sense, like all the numbers. I like math, so all the numbers just like make sense.”

And if it keeps on making sense, she hopes her idea could go on to help save lives.

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Mike Anderson
Mike Anderson often doubles as his own photographer, shooting and editing most of his stories. He came to KSL in April 2011 after working for several years at various broadcast news outlets.


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