Zachary Bjornson-Hooper was 12 when he reported that airline water was contaminated with microorganisms and received national news coverage in more than 100 media stories, then got an award from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“I was happy that I wasn’t too young to make a difference and that my research was affecting more people than just myself,” he says.

Soon he was named by Teen People magazine as one of 20 teens that will change the world. He is also one of 20 teens worldwide that serves as an advisor for the United Nations Environment Programme. Recently, he was invited to Bangalore, India and met with 96 people from 60 countries to discuss the world’s long-term environment problems.

The 17-year-old freshman says: “I want to have a direct effect on people’s lives.”

Bjornson-Hooper, who has traveled to 35 countries and flew to Australia with his parents when he was 12, had a strong suspicion that airline water was unsafe for drinking. (“For example,” he says, “planes fly to Mexico and India, which have contaminated municipal water, then refill their tanks. It made sense.”) So he decided to collect water samples from three airlines and test the water with a kit in his hotel room, and he was right. It was contaminated.

Back at home, on an online bulletin board he posted the results, which were spotted by a reporter from the Wall Street Journal. “They couldn’t take the word of a 12-year-old,” says Bjornson-Hooper, so the newspaper hired a company to test the water and confirmed the child’s results. Later, the EPA heard of it and conducted 165 of their own water tests, all positive. The EPA then presented results to the U.S. Congress, which made it illegal for airlines to serve contaminated water.

“What I learned from all this is always be curious and don’t accept no for an answer,” says Bjornson-Hooper, who wound up on the Today Show.

The son of a writer and an air traffic controller from Alamo, California, he plans to study bioengineering at MIT. He hopes one day to do stem cell research, work in drug development, or launch his own biotechnology company.

“I definitely want to help other people,” he says. “You don’t get much satisfaction doing work just for yourself. It’s all about improving other people’s lives and seeing them happy.”

Raised a vegetarian, he was president of the environment club all through school and did much volunteer work for environmental groups. “My dream for the future is environmental sustainability,” he says. “I know now I have the ability to help make it happen.”