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Debunked: No, this US scientist has never been nominated for a Time Person of the Year

The claim is made in an image-based post circulating on Facebook.

For debunks

A WIDELY SHARED post on social media claims that a young US scientist called Morgan Vague was beaten to a Time Magazine Person of the Year award by Greta Thunberg. 

The claim features in an image-based post circulating on Facebook, which features a picture of Vague alongside the claim that she made “the greatest innovation of our lifetime” by discovering a bacteria that can break down plastic. 

It reads: “Meet Morgan Vague… She was nominated for Time Person of the Year. But lost out to Greta Thumberg [sic].”

However, the claim is false: although Greta Thunberg won Time Person of the Year in 2019, Morgan Vague has never even been nominated for the award.

VagueSource: Facebook

One post containing the image and shared on a Facebook account in Ireland has been shared more than 400 times, and Facebook fact-checking data available to The Journal showed that it was viewed over 4,000 times in the days after it was posted.

Part of the claim, however, is true: Vague did discover a bacteria that can break down plastic.

In 2018, the then-microbiology student isolated and bred three strains of bacteria that could consume and degrade polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – better known as polyester.

The resilient plastic is used in a range of products, including food packaging and soft-drink bottles, and takes years to break down naturally.

However, Vague found that certain strains of bacteria produce an enzyme known as lipase, which can help them to break down and digest PET.

Two of these substrains of bacteria – Pseudomonas putida and Bacillus cereus – had been discovered long before Vague’s research. But the third strain was previously unknown and named Pseudomonas morganensis after her.

The discovery was made and publicised in the middle of 2018, yet the claim on Facebook alleges that Vague was nominated for Time Person of the Year and lost out to Greta Thunberg – who won the award in 2019.

The award is given annually by the US magazine to a person, people, a group, an idea or an object that is considered to have “most affected the news and our lives, for good or ill, and embodied what was important about the year”.

Other previous winners have included Donald Trump (in 2016), Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (1999), ‘The Computer’ (1982), ‘American women’ (1975) and Adolf Hitler (1938).

Since 2006, the winner has been picked from a list of nominees – usually four but this can vary – which is announced weeks beforehand.

But Morgan Vague did not feature on the list of nominees in 2019, the year Thunberg won.

The full list that year included: Thunberg; Trump; US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi; organisers of protests in Hong Kong; and the whistleblower in the Trump-Ukraine scandal (which led to the former president’s first impeachment trial).

In fact, because Vague’s discovery occurred in 2018, it would only have made her eligible for Time’s Person of the Year award for that year.

In 2018, the nominees were: (eventual winner) ‘The Guardians’ – a broad group of journalists who faced persecution, arrest or murder for their work; Trump again; US special investigator Robert Mueller; South Korean president Moon Jae-in; Meghan Markle; filmmaker Ryan Coogler; and a group of protesters known as ‘The Activists’.

Because there was a whole year between Vague’s discovery and Thunberg’s win, the two were never in direct competition for the award.

It is simply untrue to claim that Thunberg beat Vague to Time Person of the Year in 2019.

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