Dasia Taylor is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year, a recognition of women who have made a significant impact in their communities and across the country. The program launched in 2022 as a continuation of Women of the Century, which commemorated the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. Meet this year’s honorees at womenoftheyear.usatoday.com.
Dasia Taylor’s hand was up before her brain registered what she was doing.
Her AP chemistry teacher at Iowa City's West High School had just asked which students might be interested in competing at an upcoming science fair, and Taylor was volunteering — or so that hand was telling her.
A humanities-focused high school junior — who was already overextended in student senate, on the district’s diversity and equity committee and through a myriad of other anti-racism focused activities — Taylor had no background, or interest frankly, in science fairs. But she lives by a simple code: Be curious.
With purses in the thousands and competitors honing ideas and tactics since elementary school, today’s science fair projects are far from the slapdash papier-mâché volcanoes of yore. The odds were so stacked against her that taking home a win would be the STEM equivalent of Rudy scoring a last-second touchdown.
But Taylor didn’t just win that competition, she won the next one and the one after that, too. Eventually, she made her way to the final stage of the Regeneron Science Talent Search, the Super Bowl of high school science competitions. And the resulting publicity about her unlikely story and possibly world-changing proposal made Taylor a viral sensation, thrusting the vivacious teenager into the spotlight and onto “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” “PBS NewsHour” and CNN, among others.
Taylor’s invention — a medical suture that uses beet juice to indicate when surgical wounds have become infected — was born out of her equity work, she says. Specifically, she was inspired by research showing that Black people are disproportionately affected by post-surgical complications, including infections, and that oft-repeated diagnosable signs of infection like redness of the skin and swelling don’t appear as easily on darker skin tones.
If taken to market, Taylor’s suture concept, for which she is seeking patents, could offer a simple, cheap solution for low- and middle-income countries where common, treatable infections are too often deadly.
Two years on from her viral moment, Taylor, 19, is not just a college student, but the founder and CEO of VariegateHealth, an inclusion-focused medical device company, and the face of her own “head nerd brand,” for which she uses hands-on “innovation workshops” to encourage kids to take an interest in science and live authentically.
“I’ve been adamant from the beginning: notoriety is superficial,” she says. “Without it, I wouldn't have as big of a platform, but it's not something to get swallowed up in.”
Instead, she’s using her celebrity “to be a vessel for change.”
Make no mistake, Taylor, who is being honored as USA Today’s Woman of the Year from Iowa, is out to shake up the world and nothing less. But for now, she’s building out a team to enter a new phase of testing on her suture and eventually make the device commercially viable, a timeline she knows is measured in years, if not decades. She’s also formalizing her workshops and plans to contract with local school districts to bring her design-thinking lessons directly into classrooms.
“I'm not your average science kid,” she says. “Historically, I'm not supposed to accomplish any of this. There are a ton of kids out there that, historically, are not supposed to achieve what I've achieved.”
“For me to tell them, ‘Hey, I did this, this, this and this, and now I’m here.’ They see that as, ‘Oh, you did that? I can do that.”
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Let’s start with your invention. How do your color-changing sutures work?
It really relies on the basic principles of science; pH is a very basic principle. It basically says when you have an infection, your pH increases and so I want to target that with my stitches. And because the stitches use a beet indicator, they're able to pick up on that pH change and change color in the process.
If you're able to identify the infection from the pH, which is one of the very first signs of infection, you can treat it with antibiotics, as opposed to increasing your medical bill, having to stay at the hospital longer, missing out on a bunch of work, having to go through another surgery, just putting your body through all that.
How will your equity work impact your new company?
I often don't see Black people who create medical devices. I don't often see Black people within the lab spaces that I've visited. And, historically, there have been very few people of color allowed into those spaces.
We're Black-owned. We’re queer-owned. And we want to bring forth more representation within those identities and make sure when we're going out to find new expertise that we're being very intentional with who we're bringing onto our team. That's a really important aspect for me because I've been in so many places that have not necessarily been inclusive.
How do you prepare for moments when you are the only woman or the only person of color at the table?
I'm a bold personality. I have a lot of confidence in myself, but that doesn't mean I don't notice when I'm the only person with my lived experience in a room.
When I have meetings, when I go to conferences, I don't see many people who look like me. And after I leave those conferences or those meetings, I get a lot of like, ‘Oh, wow, your perspective is very interesting.’ And I'm just looking forward to the day that I see another person of color staring back at me and having those similar perspectives, or, really, running the whole show.
You’re a music junkie and a vinyl collector. What’s a song that helped through a roadblock?
“She's Got Her Ticket” by Tracy Chapman. Phenomenal album. I listened to it almost nonstop October through December when I was contemplating taking a break from school. She basically talks about this girl who has her ticket to chase her dreams and no one's going to stop her.
How did you come to the decision to take time off from school?
Taking time off from school, something I never thought I would do. I was always taught: You go to high school and get your diploma, you go to college and get your degree, and then you do whatever comes after that.
I had this big dream of building a medical device company. It was a lot of pressure to continue to do a full course load in college and be successful at it, and continue to build a medical device and medical device company and be successful at it, and continue to build Dasia the brand and do speaking engagements and be good at it.
Ultimately, I started to realize that the institution will always be there. But I have the opportunity to build my company now and continue to inspire kids now and that’s what I did.
How do you define courage?
I define courage as understanding that showing up as your authentic self will afford you more opportunities than trying to be someone that you're not.
What was your proudest moment and why?
A kid dressed up as me for their preschool Black History Month celebratory day! Moments like that are really big drivers for why I continue to do what I do because there are kids looking up to me, and I don't want to let them down.
I embrace my nerd identity. There were a lot of missed interactions within my peers because I prefer learning over external experiences, and so, because of that, I want to really make sure kids know you can be cool from being a nerd. It is totally OK to embrace that aspect of you.
A scientist encouraging kids to embrace their nerd identity. Have you considered becoming the new Bill Nye?
Yes! To be quite honest, I would want to be the Dasia Taylor. That's a huge aspect of what I want to accomplish this year with building a culture around my identity in the sense of being a nerd and loving learning.
I also heard someone say when you lead or you let your light shine, you unconsciously allow others to do the same. I have a seat at the table, and I'm not folding and blending in with the rest of the table, I'm owning my identity at that table. And that tells the kid behind me that you can do that, too. You could do that now.
If you think about your story as a fairytale, what is the moral of the story?
You never know what you can do until you try. Simple, very simple. Because I raised my hand in class one day, and it changed my life.
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This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: An Iowa student invented a infection-detecting suture. Now she's a CEO