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14-Year-Old Utahn Wins Science Prize For Natural Bacteria Dye

Photo of Zhan.
Broadcom MASTERS
Gary Zhan (right) of Logan, Utah, won second place for his bacteria-based alternative to blue dye.

It all started with an allergy to “brilliant blue.”

That’s the name of the artificial coloring added to drinks like Gatorade that caused an allergic reaction to a close friend of 14-year-old Gary Zhan.

Naturally, as any friend with a scientific bent would do, the Logan High School freshman decided to find a better, more efficient way to create a blue dye. But Zhan also took a natural route  — by using bacteria.

This idea led him to Washington D.C. where he recently won two awards at a national science competition.

Zhan returned home to Utah today with a prize of $2500 after winning second place in the technology category at the 2018 National Broadcom MASTERS. He was also selected by his peers for a leadership award that included a speech at this week’s ceremony.  

The prize aside, Zhan’s excitement was in not only developing a dye that wasn’t harmful but in discovering a natural approach to coloring has always been inefficient.

“We want to increase the yield so it has a better chance of being used by the public rather than using these synthetic dyes,” Zhan said. “The reason people use synthetic dyes is because they are cheap.”

Zhan’s new method, which he worked on while a student at the Andover School of Montessori, uses cooler temperatures to trigger bacteria into making blue dye called indigoidine and boosted production by 28 percent.

The project, dubbed “The Colder, the Bluer — Significant Enhancement of Indigoidine Production Using a Cold-Shock Inducible Promoter,” earned Zhan a spot with 29 other middle school-age scientists during the competition’s six-day retreat focused on collaboration and creativity. MASTERS, which stands for Math, Applied Science, Technology, and Engineering for Rising Stars, is a program of the Society for Science & the Public.

“These kids realize they can be smart, cool and accepted by a peer group, often for the first time in their lives,” said Paula Golden, president of the Broadcom Foundation.

Golden knows that this age group, 12-14 years old, can be a lonely time, especially for students who are gifted and feel drawn to math and science.

“We show them, ‘Yes, you have a place and you can make a place for others.’” Golden said. “They go home transformed.”

Zhan’s $2,500 prize is his to spend on the STEM summer camp of his choice. He’s still weighing his options on where he’d like to go.


Lee Hale began listening to KUER while he was teaching English at a Middle School in West Jordan (his one hour commute made for plenty of listening time). Inspired by what he heard he applied for the Kroc Fellowship at NPR headquarters in DC and to his surprise, he got it. Since then he has reported on topics ranging from TSA PreCheck to micro apartments in overcrowded cities to the various ways zoo animals stay cool in the summer heat. But, his primary focus has always been education and he returns to Utah to cover the same schools he was teaching in not long ago. Lee is a graduate of Brigham Young University and is also fascinated with the way religion intersects with the culture and communities of the Beehive State. He hopes to tell stories that accurately reflect the beliefs that Utahns hold dear.
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