At age 17, Chené Mostert became living (and unlikely) proof that success doesn’t come overnight, when she won a prestigious international innovation award at the 2012 Intel International Science & Engineering Faire.

At the time, this local resident of Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal was already a nine-year veteran of science expos! And that, we believe, is the A to Z of how her mind became so attuned to identifying problems and solutions – such as the toothbrush hygiene product that shot her to science circuit fame – and, possibly, fortune.

Too close for comfort

While brushing her teeth one night, Chené caught sight of just how close the basin was to the toilet in her family bathroom. Knowing this was too good an opportunity for bacteria to spread, she started entertaining an idea for a toothbrush-sterilising device.

As part of her research, she tested more than 150 used toothbrushes from all South Africa’s provinces and neighbouring countries, finding more than 100 different types of bacteria growing on the bristles.

“I realised there was nothing on the local market for cleaning toothbrushes, so I designed a plastic box with a rotation system in which toothbrushes could be stored and cleaned,” Chené says.

The box holds up to four brushes and contains hydrogen peroxide. To sterilise the brushes, the user turns a handle attached to the box, which puts an internal scrubbing brush to work on getting the bacteria off.

A year later, the idea netted her an award at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Isef) in the United States, and the chance to patent her invention.

Nature or nurture?

It’s easy to celebrate Chené’s achievement as talent, pure and simple, but its significance goes further than that.

“I took part in the Eskom Expo for Young Scientists every year,” she revealed at the time. (It was at the Eskom Expo that Chené’s project was chosen as one of nine to represent South Africa at Isef.)

Opportunity

Not only did the bacteria-busting device win her a US$2 000 (R17 000) cash prize, but she was also invited to return to the US for a chance to patent her invention later the same year.

She thoroughly deserved it too – success being 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. But if we consider the wider significance of Chené’s story, we must recognise its worth as an extremely effective model for fostering interest and innovation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines – curricula that guarantee early exposure to the right candidates and prolonged immersion in the subject matter.