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Cleaning Up Sex Trafficking with Chemistry

Sarah O’Connor ’21 drops a soapy sphere into a large beaker with a plop. Small bubbles, purple and pink, quickly begin cascading up the sides of the beaker creating a whipped soufflé of foam that soon escapes the mouth of the beaker and spills onto the countertop. O’Connor laughs with satisfaction as the other students gather to admire the mess they made – an intentional mess aimed at combatting sex trafficking in Houston.

O’Connor along with the other chemistry and biochemistry majors, Sophia Guerrero ’20, Milton Fernandez ’21 and post-baccalaureate student Julia Chandler, spent their summer testing and retesting soap recipes. Their work helps a local nonprofit, Elijah Rising, to develop products they can sell in order to aid women who have been rescued from sex trafficking. The soapy mess that spilled onto the counters, a success by all measures, was a bath bomb they developed through their research.

“I like the chemistry and I like understanding the science behind the different bath products,” O’Connor said. “I’ve seen all these products on the shelves and now I know how to make it in the lab.”

A Connection to Elijah Rising

Students worked under the tutelage of Dr. Crystal Young, assistant professor of chemistry, who first heard about human trafficking from a knitting group at her church. When a friend told her about A 2nd Cup, a coffee shop aimed at educating people about trafficking while using the proceeds to aid its victims, she checked it out and soon found herself an active and involved member. Through her participation there, she learned about Elijah Rising.

When Young heard about their challenges developing soap for their retail operation, she knew this was an opportunity to share her gifts.

“A lot of time people are asked to donate their legal, social or medical services, which are tools that I don’t have in my tool chest,” Young said. “I am really happy to be able to unite my love for chemistry with this cause.”

She included her students in the process and allowed them to direct the process of the research and work directly with leadership at Elijah Rising.

“They gave us a bottle of hand soap from the brand Lush and said ‘this is the gold standard,’ so I passed that along to the students,” Young said. “Within a couple of days they made something better. I was surprised, this was the fastest I had ever seen research come together.”

This was uncharted territory for all involved. Young teaches organic chemistry, but being able to venture into formulation chemistry sparked some new ideas and lessons. For the students, working within a new environment and with a new organization brought new experiences.

“I liked learning more about the cause,” O’Connor said. “I knew sex trafficking existed, but it was cool to work with people facing it head on.”

Together they developed formulas for liquid soaps and bath bombs that were economically priced, sourced with natural ingredients and worked well. Additionally, they accomplished this using household tools so people within the Elijah Rising organization could reproduce the products without the use of a specialized chemistry lab.

“I was there for stop-gap measures,” Young said. “It’s not my job to perform research any more. As a research professor it is my job to facilitate and help students find the resources they need to be successful.”

Elijah Rising

Elijah Rising is a nonprofit whose mission is to end sex trafficking through prayer, awareness, intervention and restoration. Through their online retail and storefront, they sell goods that empower and use the proceeds to provide resources to survivors of sex trafficking. They have recently reopened their intake facility, an 84-acre farm that can house survivors and provide around-the-clock trauma care. Additionally, the women will be given the opportunity to earn money making candles, soaps and other products based on the formulas developed by UST’s student research.

About the Author — Darnell Miller ’10, MLA ‘15

AvatarDarnell Miller is a writer, photographer and videographer who loves storytelling in all forms. He is a UST alumnus who is passionate about education and study abroad.

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