For their science projects, most fifth-graders hope to get an A, or perhaps a pretty blue ribbon in the science fair. But 12-year-old Gaby Zane, who lives in Denver, came up with a project that earned her a lot more than that. In fact, her research made it into a serious medical journal, an achievement most professional (adult) scientists strive for.

Gaby’s mother, Dr. Siobhan Murphy-Zane, gave Gaby the inspiration for her project. Dr. Murphy-Zane, an orthopedic surgeon, explained to her daughter that there’s a rule in the children’s hospital where she works: stuffed animals aren’t allowed in the operating room. There are no actual cases where a stuffed animal has caused an infection, but the rule is about prevention.

“We have a ‘Project Zero Project’ at Children’s Hospital Colorado where we are trying to minimize SSIs,” Gaby’s mother explained to 11 Alive. “The push is on to decrease the bacterial load for the operating room … not just people scrubbing in or wearing booties on their feet. We’re trying to minimize traffic coming in and out of the OR and minimize materials coming into the room.”

When Gaby heard this, she considered that if she were to undergo an operation, she would certainly want her favorite stuffed cat, Sheena, to be with her. “Kids probably get stressed that they’re going to have to go through an operation,” Gaby explained to 11 Alive. “Stuffed animals really help with staying calm, but they can carry lots of bacteria into the operating room.”

So she figured that for her fifth-grade science project, she’d do some good and come up with a simple solution: ridding stuffed animals of bacteria prior to entering the operating room. “I thought ‘why not just wash them,'” Gaby told 11 Alive. “We did a study on how we could decrease the bacteria, and it worked. You just have to throw them in the washer and [dryer].”

So Gaby got to work: she ordered petri dishes, an incubator, and worked on giving stuffed animals (both hers and her brother’s!) a deep-clean in her basement. First, she took swabs and cultured the samplings. Though they had “a lot” of bacteria initially, the bacteria decreased by 94% after washing them.

Dr. Murphy-Zane shared Gaby’s project with a colleague, Dr. Jonathan Schoenecker, M.D., Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University, who had been working on a similar project in his lab. “His lab was so thrilled and sent her a really nice note and jokingly said ‘they had been scooped by a fifth grader,'” Gaby’s mother said. “The next thing we knew, the manuscript was written and had been accepted to the Journal of Pediatric Orthopaedics.”

Want to see for yourself? The article is called Stuffed Animals in the Operating Room: A Reservoir of Bacteria with a Simple Solution. “You just have to throw them in the washer [hot water] and dryer and that will get them pretty clean,” Gaby explained to 11 Alive. “Put them in a sealed plastic bag before you get to the operating room to make sure they stay sterile, and you’ll be OK.”

Though Gaby’s mother has been working on projects for years, the one created by her daughter was the very first one to get published. Looks like medical smarts run in the family! “Sometimes you’ll do projects that never get out of the manuscript stage and never get into the publican stage, so it’s kind of funny that this is the project — out of all the ones I did last year — that got published first,” Dr. Murphy-Zane told 11 Alive. “It’s been a good grin on our faces that this is the one that got published.”

That being said, Gaby’s ultimate dream is not to become a medical researcher, but a writer or a journalist. But hey, curiosity and investigation is needed for that, too. We’re sure that no matter what Gaby goes after, she’ll get it.

(Images via 9News video)