By Bruce Frankel
December 11, 2000 12:00 PM

High school chemistry whiz Ashley Mulroy was reading a science magazine last year when she came across an article about antibiotics and other drugs discovered in European rivers and tap water. If drugs were present there, she reasoned, they might also be found near her home in Moundsville, W.Va. After all, she knew that area farmers used antibiotics to ward off disease and enhance the size of their livestock. Mulroy, a straight-A student, realized that the presence of antibiotics in U.S. waters could lead to resistant bacteria, so-called super-germs, capable of killing untold numbers of Americans. “It’s scary,” she says. “There are strains out there that we just can’t do anything about.”

Mulroy, 17 and a high school senior, began testing her own area’s river—the Ohio. Her experiment, one of the first of its kind in the U.S., showed that low levels of three antibiotics (penicillin, tetracycline and vancomycin) are indeed present in local waters; her study won acclaim from Nobel laureates and other eminent scientists. In August, after winning this year’s state science fair in Huntington, W.Va., Mulroy was honored in Sweden as the grand laureate of the International Stockholm Junior Water Prize, a virtual Nobel Prize for teenagers. “She is a wonder to behold,” exclaims John Bisbocci, Mulroy’s mentor at the Linsly School, a private academy in nearby Wheeling, W.Va. “To observe her working in a laboratory is like watching Madame Curie.”

When Ashley first embarked on the experiment, some doubted she could succeed. But her mother, Billie Witte, 42, who has long been awed by her daughter’s furious commitment to projects, told her, “If you’re confident you can do this, then go for it.” Witte and Ashley’s father, Robert Mulroy, 40, a sleep-lab technician, split when Ashley was a toddler.

Mulroy improvised her own collection device (a pole with an empty film canister clamped to the end) and over 10 weeks collected 350 samples of water from five sites along the Ohio and its tributaries. Meanwhile, using scientific journals, she taught herself to analyze the samples by running electrical currents through a gelatin mold. “This was the most academically and scientifically sound project I’ve encountered for someone her age,” says Bisbocci, who came to Linsly after teaching chemistry at Ohio University for 40 years.

There’s a lot more to Mulroy than lab work. Besides achieving a perfect 4.0 average, she is a starting forward and captain of her school’s girls’ basketball team and coeditor of the school newspaper. She also volunteers at an animal shelter and a summer science camp. All without being a show-off. “Mulroy is the most unassuming, modest girl I’ve ever met,” says Carrie Kozdras, her pre-calculus teacher and basketball coach. “No one is like her.”

An only child, Mulroy showed her unusual curiosity early on. Her stepfather, Bob Munn, 50, who, with Witte, manages a weekly shopping guide, remembers the day he was driving 4-year-old Ashley home from preschool. “Tell me something I don’t know yet,” she demanded.

Her interest in science was sparked by walks in the woods with her mother. But it was “the day-to-day stuff—how water comes through the faucet, how rain sticks to glass,” that most fascinated her. “It occurred to me that science is not this dead thing,” she says. “It’s happening all around us.”

By sixth grade, Mulroy was winning science fairs and putting aside for college some of the $70,000 she had amassed in prize money. In one project she demonstrated how broccoli could be used to absorb harmful selenium from soil. After winning this year’s state science fair, she was chosen to attend the conference in Stockholm, where her Ohio River study earned her a $5,000 scholarship prize and an audience with Sweden’s Crown Princess Victoria.

Next fall Mulroy will likely have her pick of the colleges she is eyeing—Kenyon College in Ohio and England’s Oxford University, among others. Though some of her teachers predict she will one day win an actual Nobel Prize, Mulroy, who loves reading mysteries, looks forward to becoming a forensic pathologist and continuing to explore chemistry. “I want to make my own discoveries,” she says, “and not just read what others have done.”

Bruce Frankel

J. Todd Foster in Wheeling