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Natalie Kerr, a senior majoring in chemistry at the University of Illinois Springfield, recently won the first Falling Walls Lab Illinois competition to earn the title of Illinois Young Innovator of the Year. Kerr also won an all-expenses-paid trip to Berlin, Germany, to compete at the Falling Walls Lab global finale on Nov. 8. Di’Quan Ishmon, a sophomore in mechatronics engineering at Northern Illinois University, was the competition’s runner-up.

Falling Walls Lab was presented by the Illinois Innovation Network, a group of 15 university-based hubs across the state that aims to boost Illinois’ economy through entrepreneurship, research and workforce development.

“I was very pleasantly surprised and really excited, and I’m very honored," Kerr said. "I’m very grateful that I have people like Dr. Keenan Dungey, my research professor at UIS, who encouraged me to apply for this because otherwise I might not ever leave the lab. I’m also grateful that Falling Walls has this competition for ideas like mine that have reached the breakthrough stage but maybe aren’t quite ready for the market. This project does have the potential to impact the whole world, so I’m looking forward to introducing it to the people who can make it or break it. And I’m thankful for UIS, because the small campus has allowed me to design my own research project and take it in the direction that I was passionate about.”

Kerr earned the top prize with her presentation “Breaking down the wall of nutrient pollution,” where she proposed a solution to the way agricultural runoff harms wetland environments. A panel of judges made up of leaders from Illinois’ public universities selected Kerr’s presentation out of a field of 12 young researchers and entrepreneurs who represented five of the state’s public universities.

“I am so happy for Natalie, who I know will represent the University of Illinois System, the IIN and the entire state very well at the Falling Walls Lab global finale,” said Ed Seidel, University of Illinois System vice president for economic development and innovation, whose office is responsible for development of the IIN and Discovery Partners Institute. “Natalie’s idea could truly be a game-changer in protecting wetland environments. It was thrilling to hear the variety of interesting solutions to large-scale problems that all of these students presented at today’s event.”

The competition, which solicited applications from early-career researchers, entrepreneurs, and students affiliated with all of Illinois’ public universities, had entrants from UIS, Northern Illinois University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

“All 12 of our state finalists at Falling Walls Lab Illinois did an incredible job,” said Kyle Harfst, U of I System associate vice president for economic development and innovation, who led execution of the event. “They each presented very interesting concepts and showed the wealth of knowledge and innovation that exists throughout our state.”

Falling Walls Lab is a fast-paced contest where competitors have just three minutes to propose a research-based solution to a global problem. The winners of the 91 Falling Walls Lab satellite contests will be entered into the Falling Walls Lab Finale on November 8 – the eve of the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. All finalists receive a scholarship, which allows them to participate in the Falling Walls conference in Berlin.

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